Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Mid-Turn Slump in Megagames

Many players experience a mid-game slump in Megagames. These multiplayer, all day games are a bit of an endurance test. There are no breaks in the game for lunch or comfort, the game inexorably goes on. Players spend their time talking - a lot - thinking and sometimes moving pieces on the board. The megagames typically start at 09:30 and end sometime about 16:00 - 17:00.

The mid-game slump is usually experienced at 14:00, give or take an hour or so. Players report that the gameplay lags or that they have nothing of note to do, that they are tired and need to sit down, some go outside and have a smokers break, some go outside just to get fresh-air and some "me" time.

What are the causes of the mid-game slump?

  1. Learning the game. The first few turns everyone is learning how to play the game. We are excited and totally engaged not just with the narrative but with the requirement of learning the rules by playing them. Later in the game we have learnt the rules and only the game narrative / plot remains to engage us.
  2. Snacking. Do not discount the poor diet megagamers eat during the game. We bring lots of sweets, chocolate, cake and crisps. Really bad for endurance.
  3. Easy early problems. All the early targets have been achieved. The NPC baddies have been subdued / conquered.
  4. Stalemate. By the mid game most people have aligned to be on oneside or the other, lines have been drawn on maps / tables. Players might have tasted an early defeat in an unadvised battle and now everyone sits in big stacks and watches the other.
  5. Minor Players. The players who are totally engaged in the game seek each other out - usually in conversations, not mechanical game play, and the ones less engaged crank the mechanical game play handle and usually gossip rather than engage in game related conversations.

How the designer can address these issues? 

(5) Minor Players

This last point is the one the game designer can influence the most. Don't make minor player roles. As someone put in the Anerley Arms last night, don't give a brief that says "be loyal to", or "follow x". 

This will mean that some settings have to be handled with care - I suggest that Medieval scenarios have this issue - you have a king, some dukes and the rest are minor lords.

Choose your scenarios with care

My advice here is to choose your scenarios with care. One of my first actions when planning a game is draw up a list of player roles. If the player list has lots of minor players re-think the scenario you want to do. Should it be more political? Should it be more mechanical? Should it be a smaller game? Don't be pushed into accepting more players than your game can accept. I have heard this is a pressure some designers encounter.

I will not re-run my two megagames "Shameless and Impudent Lords" again as I first did designed them. I will eliminate minor Lords. To do this I have to either run a very small game of about 10 to 20 players and control or to make real teams.

Real Teams

What do I mean by a "real team"? I suggest that you physically arrange a team so that the players sit together, drink tea together and break bread together. There is a saying in megagames called "table teams" - this is when a group of players after several turns adopt a group think despite their briefings! This has occurred because of social pressures not because of their briefings. Use this to your advantage by arranging your players with team time and team tables. If you can afford it have team controls too.

Be loyal to

Avoid player briefs that advise the player should just be "loyal to" or "always support x". 

This advice might seem contradictory. I am advising have "real teams", but don't write briefs that say be loyal to. How can you achieve that?

I would suggest that when you form teams, give all the players on that team the same objective. Tell them they want their "faction" or their "unit" to achieve this. So give the team an objective. Then sit the players together and hopefully social pressures will bond the team. Also give them an intra-team rival or enemy. You don't like those Greeks, you are a proud Macedonian.

This will not work with all players and this is where the designer plays their trump card - casting. Make sure you cast players you know - or you know their reputation - are team players or followers of briefs. Put mavericks and conflict queens into those quirky roles. Casting is your friend.

(3) Easy early problems 

This has to be handled with care. 

A simple suggestion would be to add more events that will occur later in the game. To give a map control several cards to generate issues / problems etc. The problem with this is that it is artificial, and runs the risk of being seen as being artificial and imposed on the game. For me the great joy of megagames is that players generate their own issues and problems, and solutions - they own their narrative, they are invested in the game and they know why they do what they do. 

Probably a better suggestion is to make the early problems difficult to solve but not instantly deadly to the players. So early problems have to be hard to beat, and passive.

I remember play testing with Reiner Knizia and his mantra was he wanted to give the players two things they wanted to do, but only the possibility of doing one of them. So you have to restrict the resources they can deploy so they can only do a one or possibly two things. Maybe restrict the number of actions they can do per turn. Perhaps allow unchallenged NPCs to grow and spread if nothing is done about them. 

To solve the problem players need to learn how to work within the rules. So these early problems are like tutorials in computer games. Maybe they should learn how to collaborate with their fellow players to beat up an NPC. They might need to pool resources - treasure, blood and time - to solve a problem.

(4) Stalemate

This is a difficult problem and I think it is mostly related to the scenario used in the game. 

The obvious stalemate scenario is trench warfare in world war 1. If players sign up for this sort of game they come prepared for a slogging attritional game. The problem arises when the game scenario promises wheeling and dealing and delivers "big-stack standoffs". Players thought they were going to have an effect on the game but find they are at the bottom of the hierarchy doing the bidding of their master.

The answer to this is again structure. Ensure the solutions to the problems in your game cannot be easily solved with big stacks - unless that is how the historical scenario went. If you have to have big stacks, go for real teams. If the scenario enables you then distribute the tasks to several players who have to move to other regions / tables and will be gone for several turns.

But this is a difficult problem.

(2) Snacking

Everyone has their own pet theories about dieting and food. One suggestion I would make is that many people get dehydrated without knowing it. Perhaps you could provide free bottles of water on each table as well as a well stocked and friendly canteen.

(1) Learning the game

There is no easy answer to this. The known responses are to have a longer than usual first turn and to have an initial setup that requires a battle or conflict to be resolved so that all players can observe the walk through.

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