Friday, 27 March 2015

Your ruleset via a powerpoint presentation

This is the challenge.

Can you write the rules of a game on a series of powerpoint slides that guide the player through a game's order of play and give them all the relevant rules for each phase?

I have just seen a demonstration of this by a friend. And it blew me away.

Paul was teaching a class of 16 nine-year olds, with the help of one teaching assistant. He wanted to get them to play a game about being an ancient Briton facing the Roman invasion in AD 43. They had not started lessons about this period, and had previously done something about the Ancient Greeks. Paul's game was to give them an exciting introduction into the world of the Ancient Briton, to launch them into learning formally about it.

His solution was to use a powerpoint presentation. The first few slides had pictures of Ancient Britons, a map, giving the tribal names and locations, some pictures and descriptions of their technology, their buildings etc. After this there came a set of slides that introduced the rules. He ran through these slides and played a demonstration turn on a game board in front of all the class. At the end of the presentation he sent them into their groups to their tables with their game boards, clicked a link and went back to the slide giving the rules for the first game phase.

And off they went.

What a great idea. Great for teaching a game to young players. Great for teaching players not willing to read the rule book, and an excellent way to remind the players which phase they were on, what they had to do and what rules applied.

I'm sold on this.

I think this could work for any age group.

I will design a game using this format and report back.


Monday, 23 March 2015

The cracks between tables: Moving the narrative between teams in megagames

I have another confession to make as an Control Umpire for Megagames.

This is similar to the Rubber Failure I wrote about earlier. This time I want to talk about a failure, why it happened, why Megagames are more prone to this particular problem and how it could be solved and the problems with the solutions.


The fail

In the Megagame Watch The Skies 2 (WTS2), there was a problem of an asteroid that was predicted to be about to hit earth with the potential for ending all life on the planet.

I was the Control Umpire for the Alien Expeditionary teams. One of my teams came to me and said they had heard about this asteroid from a human government and wanted to help by averting this disaster.

We talked the various solutions through - this was me as an umpire role-playing their various scientists and technicians on the players' staffs. The team decided which solution they wanted to do, they paid the cost and the asteroid was diverted onto a new course that would take it harmlessly past earth and into the sun. I charged them four Activation Points to do this. This was half the cost of creating a moon base for them. The cost was mostly in lost opportunities, as sending a light spaceship with the right kit onboard to land on the asteroid was a trivial problem for them. They just lost the ability to use the spaceship to do other useful stuff.

And this is where it got difficult and I think I failed as an umpire. I forgot to follow through on this outcome. I forgot to tell the players to tell whoever had told them about the asteroid that they had diverted it. And I didn't think to find the umpire who had deployed this problem and tell them (and I didn't know who the umpire was).

I think this is why later in the game we were told there was a second asteroid. The message about the solution had not got through to whoever generated and was driving the problem.


The problem of umpire to umpire communication

And I think this was the fail. A failure of an umpire to liaise with another umpire.

How else does my ruling get fed back to the umpire who owns the problem? Until the umpire owning the problem is informed the problem will remain, no matter what steps other players and umpires do in the game.

I have attempted to reconstruct lines of communications that led to this - or just guessed.

Rob, one of the game control umpires, who sits outside the team and map games, has a role to have an overview of the game, and to generate problems to prod parts of the game that need a stimulus. If he thinks Table A is quiet or Team 42 is not having a good game he can drop a little bombshell in their laps. This was part of his role. To do this he tells some players or umpires about an incident. My guess is that Rob told those teams that had advanced astronomy or organisations like NASA etc. So it would probably be the American, Russian, and Chinese teams. Again this is a guess.

I do know that the USA team discussed the Shakewell asteroid problem. At some point they asked their alien player "friends" to help and the aliens were willing to help the USA and said they would do it. This alien team worked out a solution with me, paid the resource cost and diverted the asteroid. And then I forgot to check that the solution would get passed down the chain of communication.
  • Did the aliens tell the USA they had solved the problem?
  • Did the correct player on the USA team hear about the solution?
  • Did that player then tell the correct umpire that it had been solved?
  • And why didn't I follow up and find the umpire and liaise with him?

The cracks between the tables are bigger than they look.

At the risk of sounding the obvious, this is the most difficult thing to do in multi-player, multi-room or multi-table games. How to move information between tables is hard. Sometimes it is obvious. For example, when a spaceship blew up over Italy, I told the Europe Regional Map Control Umpires about this and let them run with it. But it was upto me as an umpire to liaise with other umpires about this big news.

But when my aliens divert an asteroid into the sun, who do I tell? The players were two steps away from the umpire who generated it. So they cannot tell me which umpire I need to liaise with.

I should have found out. I should have guessed. My bad.

Solutions

I can think of two solutions.

1. Don't worry about it - it's just a narrative. The game is actually a narrative that is being told by the players with assistance from the umpires. So there is not a "game reality" and I did not fail. We are just adjusting our narrative as best we can communicate. Only when the story is told and accepted does the story appear in the game reality.

Though I have conceptual problems about this. I do perceive there is a "game reality" which has consequences for actions. So we have to get it right.

2. Have concrete things to represent real world problems. For example the Umpire generating or handling a real world problems outside of the main rule set, hands out cards - pre-prepared - with his details on it - from the desk of  the umpire for game control. These cards are handed out as the problem is introduced and the players are told that these need to be shown to the umpires or other players. When the card is resolved, the umpire or player can take it back to the original umpire.

The problem with this is having enough cards, of players hanging onto cards and not handing them on, or just loosing cards.

Another issue is that it limits the creativity of the umpires, having to think up of problems pre-game to print out.


Discusson

I hope this little admission is taken in the spirit it is given. 

I am trying to improve the experience of megagames and trying to learn lessons so that others might learn too. 




Sunday, 22 March 2015

Confessions of a Civilized Umpire

I had an interesting and challenging role as one of the Control Umpires for the Alien teams in the megagame Watch the Skies 2.

I had enjoyable game, though one now served with a cold slice of guilt.

Half of the Alien Control Umpire Team, in their
balcony backwater. (L-R Jaap, Nick and Jon.)
After the game I had a post-game chat with Simon and Jerry, control umpires for the science game, and Paul, one of the African regional map control umpires. They had grinding games, with little respite, and little chance to get involved with the players other than driving the game at busy tables.

Also Paul asked me where the Alien Control team were, because we did not get down to the Regional Map Tables to liaise with them and collect and deliver messages.

So, I feel a little guilty that I had such a good game. And also I need to apologize to all the other Regional Map Control Umpires for our lack of liaising. Sorry guys.

So why was my game so different? In a nutshell I had a variety of thing things to do; some were even rules related, but most involved me using my judgement and what social skills I have.


Mentoring

The first duty of Megagame Control Umpires is to ensure that the players get a good game experience. Period! OK, we try to make consistent adjudications based on written rules, but we are really there to make sure that the players get a win from the experience.

And in WTS2 all the Umpires were very aware that we had many first time players. I think all the Alien players were first time players. That is a very high ratio. Most Megagames over the last few years have a cadre of returning veterans. These players are often cast as team leaders etc. and help initiate newbies through the rites of playing in a Megagame.

So during the setup and during the first turn I went from team to team and asked them if they had everything they required, if they had any questions, and could I help.

One team admitted they were very confused. So I told them that the start of megagames are usually like this though some of their problem were down to the fact that they were actually strangers in a strange land. I advised them to concentrate on scouting, intelligence gathering and even liaising with their "rival" teams. I also reminded them that all their actions had to be paid for in Activation Points (APs) and that they had a limited supply and a limited launch capacity. This started them off and after that they quickly learnt the ropes.

I was pleased to note that at the end of the game one of the players I had attempted to mentor did come up to me to thank me for helping him and his team out, and that he had had a great experience. Ahh... that pleases the twisted soul of an old grognard: enthusiastic young padawans.


Rules problems

After the first few turns the players settled in their roles, and had learnt the routine of each turn, and we left the to run their own internal games. This might be surprising to some people, but as Control we do not really see our role to check on the players. We just ask if they have any problems, we sort out problems and the game generally starts to run itself.

But there are problems. Most of the problems you have are those little pieces of grit that get swept up into the wheels of the game machine. For example during WTS2 players asked me the following questions:
  • The East Asian Regional Table Umpires did not give the alien players any "Human Specimen" cards after they had successfully played an abduction card? Was this correct?
  • I have just got a telepathy helmet. How can I use it to talk to Aliens?
  • How can I return this Cardinal to the planet in a shuttle and not get shot down?
  • How can we divert an asteroid's trajectory? One is about to hit Solaris C.

And this is why I like being an umpire. To resolve the above questions the Control Umpire has to role-play being a senior member of a player's staff, a civil servant, diplomat, scientist or military officer. The guidance for Control Umpires are explicit in this. The trick is not to give the solution, but to answer the questions put to you with a range of options, and to explain the risks, the advantages and disadvantages.



Lack of gaming materials

Some problems are more systemic. For example we had to guide the players through the rules for researching language and humanity. The rules were easily explained, but there was no game board to track the progress of such research. Now I think about it we should have drawn a track for them and plotted this. As it was on the day we asked the science players to come to the Umpires with their APs, and the requisite cards and keep their own track.

Another problem we had was that we ran out of models for PACs, and Shuttles and had to issue chits!


And then you have to make exciting decisions under pressure

The most challenging decision I had to make during the day was the proposed planetary bombardment by The New Republic (NR) team.

My main consideration was that I had to get this right as it was going to be a game changing action. Uptil then the aliens had abducted a few humans, but had not really done much damage. A planetary bombardment could destroy a large city and kill many millions of people.

The first thing I had to do was to remind them how this mission was done. A large capital spaceship enters into a low orbit and strafes the target. This might expose their ship to any space capable interceptors that humanity might have. It would definitely expose them to interception from other spaceships as the trajectory used to line up the strafe would be obvious to any nearby spaceships.

The problem I had as an umpire was that the tracking of fleets had been left to the High Politics game in the other room, which was on the opposite side of a large hall. I checked with Martin, the Control Umpire for the strategic space sub-game, what fleets were in the Solaris C solar system. I then made subtle inquiries with the High Politics teams about where their fleets were. I did not tell them why I was asking, and I asked about all of their fleets. I also asked them to give me the orders for each fleet. This took some time. Looking back on it it would have been great if there was a map with counters to track these things, but there wasn't and Martin and John were working hard to keep the game flowing for 15 players so they had not had the time to make one. Martin had tracked things with arrows on a map. But I wanted to hear from the High Command players what their orders were.

I was then able to tell the NR commander what ships might intervene if he carried on with his attack. This is information that would have easily been available to his staff, but the game system had caused the intelligence hard to find. The NR Commander had orders from his High Command to attack three locations: Rome, Rio de Janiero and Tokyo. I gave the NR player "on the ground" the information about the Imperial Fleet that could intervene. He made his deployment and was going to carry out his orders. I did give him an option to abort.

I then found the Imperial player "on the ground" and asked him some questions about his interstellar capability, what ships he had in the solar system, what bases he had and what was his posture. Again, general questions, but designed to get relevant information and not alert him to why I wanted to know.

I then warned both commanders that at the start of the next action phase I wanted them to report to me before they left for Solaris. Just winding them up really!

At the start of the next phase I gathered all the players round and brought the New Republican and Imperial Commanders to the front. I told all the players that there would be a delay in going down to the planet as we had an incident. I asked the Republican to repeat his orders. This was a nice bit of theatre. His orders were received with gasps, questions and cat calls from the assembled players. I clarified the dispositions of the Republican troops, writing them down on a piece of paper and gave a little explanation to the rest of the players about how the attack would be carried out. I then asked the Imperial player for his reaction and to be quick about it. He was quick and gave his deployment. I gave both players a last chance to avoid combat - this is almost always a possibility in space battles. Both would not stop.

The combat was quite simple, and I was ably assisted by Jon, another Umpire who had turned to right section of the rules and read out the results to each round of combat.

The outcome was that of the three straffing runs, the run on Rome was a draw, all craft on both sides were destroyed or seriously damaged, the attack on Rio ended in defeat of the Republican ship and the Tokyo run was unopposed. Tokyo was destroyed, killing about 10 million people.

This little battle was watched by all alien players (in the Solaris C solar system).

I then told Jim about the outcome of this action and went with him to the East Asia map and watched him implement the outcome. I had previously alerted Jim to the fact that one of the Alien teams were considering this attack, enabling me to get advice from him about the action and warning him of what was in the offing. I then went to the relevant maps - Americas and Europe - to tell the umpires that astronomers and some military installations would have noticed strange bursts of energy and explosions. And then some fragments would fall from space to the planet.


Player feedback

As usual with megagames we do not have a last turn, we merely announce towards the end of a one turn that this is the last turn. Game over. In a good game, the players are disappointed and want to enact their next turns plans, or to make that last rejoinder to the previous speech etc.

I was privileged enough in this game to be the umpire who announced the end of the game to two groups of players. All were disappointed and wanted to continue. One group, which consisted of the Senior Aliens and the UN Council (abducted earlier!) wanted their "last word" and kept on for a couple of minutes making their final points even though they knew the game was over.

That, I think, is a definition of an immersive and enjoyable game.

This makes Control Umpires around the world happy.




Friday, 6 March 2015

Why I like playing megagames

I was recently describing a megagame to a non-game playing person.

Mike, was telling me how he had recently played a cooperative game with his niece and her family and had really enjoyed the experience. He added that in the past he had played the usual family fare of Monoploy, Cluedo and Risk, and has abiding memory of this was competitive bickering and arguing.

Mike went on to ask me about the games I play. Implying or assuming that they are competitive too, and how did I like or cope with this.

I tried to explain megagames, rather than other board games, though I did mention that I had played a few cooperative games like Pandemic, and had designed a cooperative game called Live and Let Live.

After my quick definition of megagames, as multiplayer games, with hierarchical teams reporting to each other, that often took up a historical scenario like WW2 or the Wars of the Roses, Mike than asked me if that is what I liked: trying to do better than history in the replay.

My answer: I play megagames because I get an understanding of how communications and negotiations work in a conflict and are perhaps the most important element. I might learn something about the history, and the background. But it is the experience of negotiating under pressure, the need to liaise, coordinate and work with my comrades and also with the umpires that makes these games so interesting to me.