Lessons learned from mistakes made (Part 2)

This is the second part of a 2-part blog post. Check out part 1 here.

Shaun D. McMillan created ALLIANCE the Ultimate World Leader Political Science Megagame together with this high school game design students in 2014. He and other facilitators have run the game multiple times in Texas, Wisconsin, New York, Canada, and in multiple languages in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea. He also Kickstarted Great Boy the Game and has self-published a card game called Conspiracy, but finds the poor player count of prototypical card games pathetic compared to megagames. You can find his games at www.MyMegaGame.com.

Designing Redundancy into Your Roles & Responsibilities

While roles and teams can be asymmetric there should be some redundancy between teams and roles to allow for flexibility. All roles of a certain type should play by the same set of rules listed out in the same handbook.

If there are strong teams and weak teams then design a way for weak teams to get an undisclosed advantage to balance out the game.

The more truly unique roles you have in the game, or the more asymmetric those teams or roles become, the more likely you are to have unexpected complications arise.

If there are events in the game that need to be triggered by certain players then you might want to allow that responsibility to pass from one player role to another a couple times within the game, just in case that specific player doesn’t show up to play their part, or isn’t skilled enough to realize the responsibilities of their role. Or you could allow different players to step into that role.

If a team is short one player will their team be crippled by not having someone to play that role? In my game I made it so there were no meaningless roles. Each was critical. I didn’t want anyone to get bored or feel that their role didn’t matter. But having at least one role on the team who is not overwhelmed with responsibilities allows for more communication and coordination to take place. And if one player on the team doesn’t show up to fulfil a critical role, then the less critical role can step in. This is a problem that can easily compound. I heard after my game, that a team was missing a player, and one of the remaining players was so frustrated about their team being crippled that he himself nearly left the game which would have further crippled that team. This is a worst-case scenario, but very possible due to the common problem of last second cancellations.

Control Player Problems

For anyone who is unfamiliar with playing megagames, they typically have a team of volunteers who learn the game beforehand and agree to referee the game for the players called the Control Players. Each Control Player Referee might not know the entire game, but they must know and teach the portion of the game that they are refereeing.

How Many Control Players Referees Should We Have?

Players always request that there be more Control Player Referees, but facilitators always seek out games that require less volunteers. I have heard from at least two experienced megagame facilitators that a megagame should have one control player for every six players, but I have successfully run games with a ratio of one to ten. There are occasional queues and bottle-necks that build up if there are too few Control Players, but with too many control players communication could become difficult and the game itself becomes boring for the referees who are only occasionally busy, only doing rudimentary adjudications, or not very deeply involved with the core of the game. At that point they can hardly be called, “players,” at all.  I experienced this to varying degrees myself in both of the games I volunteered for as a Control player and hope to avoid creating that experience for my volunteers. But I also don’t want to overwhelm them which I have done on multiple occasions through my own lack of preparation as the facilitator and designer.

There is some room for designing creative solutions to this that I would like to experiment with. But before we can explore more creative design strategies it is important to recognize some of the most fundamental challenges for Control Player management.

Control Players Have to Learn & Teach the Rules

Control players often have to teach rules to players that they themselves are not even fully confident about. For anyone who has ever explained to anyone else how to play a board game, there is more to it than just understanding the rules yourself. You have to choose which rules to explain and in what order. What minor details should you omit until they seem necessary? Do you explain the thematic elements first or go right into the mechanics? Should you include any mention of emergent strategy or simply let the players figure that out for themselves? In a good game every rule interacts with and has some effect on every other rule. Should the emergent qualities be explicitly explained?

Have a Morale Control Player

All Control Players tend to misunderstand or misinterpret at least some of the rules, just like all human beings. The Control Players who have more experience with other megagames, with board game design, game mastering, or tabletop RPG will know to change rules or re-interpret them as they see players getting frustrated, but inexperienced Control Players will simply do as they thought they were told or cause even more anxiety for players as they themselves openly question the rules and wonder what they should be. For this reason the Facilitator really needs at least one Control player who is not busy, but understands all of the games.

Let’s call this the “Morale” Control player. This term was coined by an observant participant in my recent run of ALLIANCE Last Days. Morale is not a metric being measured on any control board. It is not a mechanical system of any kind. It is the overall engagement of the players in the game, and their emotional response to the challenges of the game.

If there is an observant Control Player they can often look around and find the one or two players who are lost, overwhelmed, or frustrated, or simply aimless at any given moment in the game. Maybe their plans were thwarted by another team, or they don’t understand how to engage with the game. With a little coaching they can easily re-engage, but if the Control team is overwhelmed then players will also become overwhelmed, disengaged, and become toxic to the atmosphere of the game should anyone else begin to feel the same way.

After my megagame at Gen Con was over we immediately prepared for another megagame that we were volunteering to be control players for. We immediately designated one of the control players with too little to do as a control player to visit different parts of the game to help the systems better communicate with each other. He helped me to find the components that I didn’t know my area needed and made a new relatively untested game far more playable.

The “morale” control player can be given very easy rudimentary mechanics to adjudicate or simple metrics to update in the game, but their key priority should be to keep an eye out for bored, confused, frustrated, or disengaged players. If every player is engaged then they can keep an eye on other Control Players to see if they are getting overwhelmed with queues. Lastly, they can simply work with any creative players or Control Players to develop something more creative to deploy towards the end of the game to ensure a strong end-game scenario.

How Likely is a Megagame to Have Significant Problems?

Some of the problems that players had with my game were to some degree out of my control or typical expected issues that we often face in megagames. Some of them were due to my overlooking these fundamentals of good game design. Some of it was due to lack of preparation even though I prepared my best. Part of the problems were due to having a design that was too complicated which also made it harder to prepare properly. But with so many moving parts and so many human beings interacting, no megagame could possible go perfectly or meet all of your players’ many expectations. The goal is not to run the game perfectly, but to manage it well enough.

You Need to Manage Player Perceptions/Expectations

In my player feedback it was often mentioned that players noticed one problem that they were willing to overlook. Some said they were willing to because either they recognized the effort with which I had designed and prepared the game. Maybe they also wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, or maybe they just wanted to just enjoy it as much as they could. Players will extend you a lot of mercy. But I also saw that there was a consistent theme in the feedback. Many players mentioned that after sharing the problem they identified with other players, that those players also began to share about a problem they identified, and then there became a general consensus among the players that the game was flawed. The last thing a designer wants is players talking about the game during the game. You want them playing the game and talking in character.

Pretty quickly these kind of comments turn into a negative snowball effect or cascading bias. This became the common perception of this particular run of my game. This is quite terrifying since the public is still forming their opinion about megagames, and the megagame community itself is forming their own opinions about each other’s games based on what they hear from others. It could be that my game was just poorly run or poorly designed, but ask any megagame facilitator and they will tell you that some of these problems are inevitable. It’s not easy to run a game perfectly for thirty plus players, or three separate minigames for three separate roles on thirty teams with asymmetric objectives, each with unexpected emergent qualities as they affect one another. If you are designing your own megagame and have not tested it at scale, or even if you have run as many megagames as I have, then try to remember some of the principles I have identified in writing this report.

Negative Perceptions can Be Changed

In the week following up with my megagame I was able to communicate with and appreciate the feedback from some of the disappointed players. Of all the 80 players that paid fifty dollars to play the game, three took up the offer to get a full refund. One of them left angrily during the game and emailed me asking for the refund without giving me helpful feedback. I responded with a thank you and returned his money as promised without mentioning how unhelpful his feedback was. He then responded more graciously, apologized, and finally gave me a detailed report in his second email. He as well as others gave me invaluable feedback and I feel that they might even give me or other megagames a second chance due to a sincere effort to learn from mistakes made.

In previous games where I had enough control players, I and other control players were able to coach players who had become disengaged or were getting outplayed by their enemies into a really gratifying turn of play. It feels great when Control Players can help players who didn’t fully understand the game to surprise strong players. Strong players like the challenge, disengaged players want to know how to move forward, and Control Players love making the game fun and balanced, especially when they can do so without much direct manipulation or coercion.

The key here is you want to catch issues as soon as possible, ideally in this order.

  1. You want to design the game so that players will be immersed in the game, not talking about the problems playing the game. After you or the designer inevitable fail to some degree on this front.

  2. Give a speech, email, or player handbook instructions to explain how a megagame cannot be as well tested as a typical board game, not as immersive as a well run LARP, and not as accommodating as a small group Tabletop RPG.

  3. You want your Control Players to be able to identify players who need help.

  4. Lastly you as the facilitator want to follow up with players with an humble and thankful attitude.

What Players Want to Know Vs What Players Need to Know

On top of these considerations megagames also often have some interplay between different minigames or systems that apply only to certain roles in the game. Are players kept blind to these effects on the rest of the game or should they be informed about them so they can consider them when making their critical choices about which actions to take within their own minigame? How important is it that each Control Player know the other systems outside of their control?

Each of the questions above depend on the unique nature of each megagame, but at the very least we need to explain the following very basic questions for each role in the game through the player rule books, the player explanations, and through the player/role/team briefings.

  • Who am I in the game?

  • What must I do in the game?

  • How do I/we win?

  • What is the context? Why does any of this matter? How do others relate to my role in the game? What ideology does my role represent?

Role Handbooks for ALLIANCE

Role Handbooks for ALLIANCE

And when it comes to mechanics consider the following:

  • Players must know that a choice is being presented to them

  • Players must know how to initiate action

  • Initially players must be compelled to act

  • Players must see the impact of their actions

 It’s good for players to be curious about the aspects of the overall game that their roles didn’t allow them to be a part of. If they are kept blind to parts of the game but still affected by those parts then it creates a nice shroud of mystery. But it is important to manage each player’s perception of the game, because if they don’t see the results of their actions, feel that there are no results to their actions rendering them ultimately meaningless, find their part of the game problematic, less important, or less engaging, then they could easily begin to resent their role compared to other roles or games that appear more meaningful.

Players Need to be Able to Find Each Other

This is a serious problem in Megagames. I would say the most overpowering advantage any team can easily gain over others is preparing a unique shirt, hat, color, or thematic costuming of any kind for their entire team to wear. When you can identify a team from across the room it is really powerful. But when you need to talk to the leader of a particular team, and you don’t know where they are stationed, what they look like, and have to read ten, twenty, or God forbid eighty different name tags to find one player, you are doomed from the outset, which was exactly what happened in my last megagame.

The solutions to this problem are pretty straightforward. Scientists are easy to identify if they wear lab coats. Secretaries of Defense would be easy to identify if they wore berets. Color coded articles of clothing of any kind would help. Tables covered in flags are a great visual identifier for which team is supposed to be where. The only real issue here is that these props are expensive and may be burdensome to travel with in large quantities. At the very least you need to be able to identify Control Players from across the room.

Debriefing at the end ALLIANCE Last Days among a mix of high school students, college students, teachers, and adult board game enthusiasts.

Debriefing at the end ALLIANCE Last Days among a mix of high school students, college students, teachers, and adult board game enthusiasts.

Even a Badly Run Megagame is More Fun Than Not Doing One At All

My ultimate fear in writing all of this is that new megagame designers or potential facilitators will be afraid to run a game for fear that they will do it badly. Fear not! The first megagame I facilitated was far worse than the second and the third, but regardless of how it might be compared to other megagames it was a truly novel and exciting experience for everyone involved. The problems we had with the game immediately piqued our interest in designing our own game. Read any after action report from players and more often than not you’ll see them pointing out flaws only to conclude that despite the problem it was still for them one of the funnest experiences they ever had.

It is rare to meet every expectation of every participant, especially once you have more than twenty people involved. But if you can exceed the expectations of the majority of your participants, which a megagame is likely to do since the experience is so much more than the sum of its parts, then you should consider it a success. It is because they are so dynamic that so many unique problems can be identified afterwards. Each of those identifiable problems is nothing more than an opportunity to improve upon the experience. I have tried to walk away from this hobby but I keep getting pulled back in because of all the potential I see here. I hope that the community continues to grow and that designers continue to experiment.

Further Reading

Nicholas W. Proctor, Reacting to the Past: Game Designers Handbook (2011)

Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, London: MIT Press, 2004).

Head over to our Facebook group if you’d like to chat about Shaun’s blog post. Thanks to Shaun for writing this two-part blog post! If you would like to write a blog post for Megagame Assembly, either from a player or designer point of view, please get in touch!

Chris Brown