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

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.


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.


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.


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.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Where's my rubber? Moving information between tables in multi-table and multi-team games.

This might seem to be a very simple thing to do -- to move game related information between tables in multi-table and multi-team games -- but it ain't.

Getting it wrong

A Victory Ship - USS Gage
I can now admit that in one megagame I and another control umpire completely got this wrong for about 2 turns. We were running the western logistics board for the megagame the Last War, 1942 - 45. This mostly meant that we were running the Battle of the Atlantic. The rules were of course simple to adjudicate. However we did not know what to do with the delivered supplies.

Eventually our mistake contributed to the now infamous "rubber shortage scandal" of the game. With players saying "where's my rubber?", or "are you hoarding rubber?"

Here are the relevant rules:

  1. Check materials available via sea routes from naval Players. Note quantity shipped. This should be based on state of access at the END of previous turn.
  2. Check materials available by land routes on Land Map. Note quantity shipped. Collect Materials Counters from Control. This should be based on state of the routes at the END of last turn.
  3. Work out which Industrial Zones have their requisite materials by placing counters on the IC appropriate card.
  4. Hand over materials counters used this turn to Control.
  5. Collect output counters representing industrial output (Tanks/Man/Ships etc) from Control
  6. Distribute counters ‘manufactured’ to correct location on map (the location of the IZ) for use NEXT turn. 

Now I read it again, I can see why I was a little confused by this sequence. The goods shipped are in effect "manufactured" and should have been moved by someone in 6 - this was not spelt out.

The best way of smoothing these things out is to take the control team through the sequence in a test game and then for the control team to pass this knowledge on to their players during the game.

I still feel a little guilty about this. I know it effected the game as there was a big materials crisis that escalated upto the senior political players. When we realised the mistake we quickly recovered and we as control umpires went down to the relevant "land" table and delivered the goods at the end of turn.

Watch the Skies 2 - control team try out

The reason this has come to mind is that last night - 16 February - I participated in a megagame control team try out, and development session for the 300 player Watch the Skies 2 megagame. This was a very successful evening. Not only did we go through a couple of test turns, we also got to discuss rules changes and developments. This was great. It helped us all appreciate the turn sequences on the day that are sometimes implicit in the rules. For example, when the turn sequence calls for players to deploy their units, do they do this simultaneously or in sequence? These things can be spelt out in the rules, but often aren't and control have to resort to the old control motto of: if I don't know it is right, I can at least be consistent.

But the key thing for me was to establish what needed to be moved from table to table. These are the things that often go wrong. Watch the Skies 2 is going to be mostly a player led game, with the control team, monitoring, assisting and driving the game.

I will be one of the alien umpires. My players' tables will be kept away from the main "earth" tables. The Aliens are in effect in space or in orbits around earth. As each game turn will be about 3 months, the "human players" will be able to move about quite freely in comparison. What I wanted to establish was what will the Alien Players take to the table, get from the table and who will carry it.

I cannot go into too much detail, but it looks like this game's design has learnt from the earlier problems encountered in this tricky business of moving game information between tables in a multi-team game. From experience this is what can go horribly wrong in a megagame.

It's not just logistics

In the example I gave of the Last War and from our try out of Watch the Skies, I was most concerned about moving logistical resources between tables. The Aliens of course will have a resource allocation game too, and I will have this to monitor.

In some ways logistics are the obvious of inter-table bits of game information. But in the try out last night we had an example of how "intelligence" can be perhaps even more slippery as it moves between tables. I cannot go into detail at this stage. All I can say is that the Secret Agents deployed to the board can gather intelligence but the actual information they glean will be literally in the hands of another player or player team not located at the same table. I think we as control umpires have worked out a solution to this, but I know Jim and others did voice concerns that we are setting ourselves up for one of these inter-table movements of game information. Was the game effectiveness of this rule worth running the risk of failure?

I was interested to hear Jim say that one of his design concerns is to remove these inter-table hiccups by getting as much done on each table as was possible.

It might seem to be a small thing, but when you have 300 players and 45 control umpires and about 10 map tables things can easily go missing.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Gun Group - Tactical Future Warfare

Game Aim

This game, Gun Group, is a determinist* back-to-back** wargame set in the near future, circa 2030 with the potential force structure and equipment that might be available then.

It is designed to give a fast moving quick resolution of low-level tactical games.

The lowest unit represented on the board was a half-section, or 4 men. There were no turns, players issued orders and responded to outcomes or until the objective had been carried out.

Background and Scenario


In an un-named African country there is a rebellion led by regular troops from one tribal group. They are fighting against another tribal group who have acquired support from a modern Western military force.

The rebels hold the capital, a megacity, with a population of 10 million. The population are sympathetic to the rebels. The loyalists and their European allies are attacking the megacity.


The Red Team mission is to defend the Skynet hub. They cannot destroy it even if it is threatened with capture.

The Red Team is a platoon sized force deployed in a large office compound in the centre of the megacity. The Red team also has 6 Improvised Explosive Devices, 6 CCTV wireless cameras and a section of autonomous, Chinese mercenaries who seem to be assigned to protect Skynet, but are not very cooperative.

The compound is surrounded by a large 15 foot breeze block wall, that would require a tank or explosion to make a hole in. There were two entrances, one in the south west corner and one in the south east corner. Inside the complex are two large office buildings, Building 54 is the central blue building and Building 55, slightly to the north.

Red Team has no information about the attacking forces.

One restriction was the areas around the compound were occupied by civilians.

The Office Compound housing the Skynet Hub.
Showing initial deployment of  Red Team forces.

Red Team Deployment

As Red Team commander I decided that the most likely attack would come through the two entrances and also in the dead ground in the north east corner, which had a two smaller buildings blocking view points from the main two blue buildings in the compound.

I assumed that the western forces would be armoured infantry with heavy weapon support. A helicopter attack was thought unlikely as we had already downed helicopters that had ventured into the airspace over the megacity.

I decided to deploy the Skynet hub on the first floor of Building 54, with most of the platoon. I put one half section in Building 55 and another in the small building in the north east corner.

I deployed three CCTV cameras on tall buildings outside the compound to overlook the main street and parts of the compound. I deployed the other three cameras on the inside of the compound on the corners of buildings to look into the compound so I could see all around Building 54.

I left two command detonated IEDs on the outside of the compound. One on the south east crossroads and the other on the crossroads at the north east corner. I hoped these would catch any convoy en route to attack us. The other IEDs I put inside the compound, one on each entrance, one on the west side loading bay of building 54 and one near the south west corner of building 55. The last IED was a last minute move, I had left it initially in a car in the middle of the car park south of the main entrance to building 55, I would regret this.

Game play

As predicted the Blue team spotted the dead ground in the north east corner and put in an armoured infantry assault. The IED went off and did some damage, taking out a Warrior APC, and injuring dismounted infantry in the vicinity. Another APC was destroyed by RPG fire, after it breached the wall and tried to manoeuvre in the confined space between the buildings occupied by my two half sections.

Whilst this exchange was going off, my cameras showed that three large civilian articulated trucks had stopped outside the southern wall of the compound and were disgorging several car sized tracked, armoured vehicles, with large guns in turrets. They seemed too small for a crew, so we guessed that they were robotic. These then blasted and forced holes in the compound wall, whilst an infantry platoon detrucked behind them and sheltered behind the wall. The robot tanks then moved into the car park. The Red force section deployed on the first floor opened up with the RPGs. It was then that we came under massive fire from the robotic tanks and also small arms fire from Blue force troops deployed in the high rise buildings just south of the compound. We came off a lot worse and the survivors of the section moved further into the interior of the building.

The robotic tanks moved into the ground floor of the building. I evacuated the one section deployed there, as I guessed that these tanks would not be able to go up the stairs. When the tanks had cleared the ground floor the Blue infantry sheltering behind the wall then rushed across the car park and into the building. How I wished I had left an IED there!

Meanwhile the north east assault had stalled for a while, whilst they did some casevac. However they had sent in some smaller robotic tanks, armed only with a machine gun. The Red half section tried to evacuate the corner building and got taken out and we lost contact with the other half section in Building 55.

I now moved all of my remaining forces into the centre of the first floor of building 54. Anytime we tried to fire out of the windows, we suffered devastating fire. The Blue force attempted to send small robotic tanks up the staircases. We easily suppressed any supporting infantry small arms and blew up the tanks with RPGs fire.

There was a pause.

Initial deployment.
It was then that my comms, that had been blocked for sometime, opened up and I received a message from HQ that they had cloned the Skynet hub and we could withdraw. Comms were then blocked. I was fooled by this, possibly because we were in an increasingly desperate position. My stalwart 2ic persuaded me that this was a ruse. We did open negotiations to stall for time.

After this, the assault started again. A blue infantry force deployed with ladders on the north side of Building 54. With fire support from their infantry in building 55 they then escaladed up and into the first floor. At the same time, there was a loud bang on the eastern outer wall on the second floor. We saw on our cameras that they had gone over the roof with ladders to do this.

After that it all got very desperate and my men started surrendering rather than suffering from a devastating assault.

Cyber Capability

I had 6 points of cyber capability. Three of which I deployed to defend my comms of my HQ and the two half sections in the north east building.

The other three points I used to create a flash mob, this took more time than usual, as it was 2am when the assault started. This flash mob appeared outside the main entrance to the compound and managed to capture several trucks and two parked robotic tanks.

This was only a nuisance to the Blue forces, though it felt good.

One game playing lesson. I took the photos of the game and posted them to Facebook during the game. Luckily the enemy team was honest, and pointed this out after telling me they had not looked, too carefully. Note to self: do not post live during a game, unless of course it is part of a disinformation campaign!


I quickly realised that we were completely outclassed even in a infantry firefight. Our only chance was to surprise the enemy in a confined space where they could not get in effective supporting fire.

I was surprised by the robotic tanks. Which is a bit silly of me, as I have played a similar scenario to this and should have known about these machines. I could have defended Building 54 by deploying more obstacles, like overturned cars and trucks to block them. I don't know what else I could've done except withdrawing into the confines of a building.

I was glad I decided not to distribute any force in a perimeter defence, apart from the section in the north east corner, who were lost fairly quickly, though they did delay the assault there. 

Our only hope was to ambush the assaulting force or get them in an enclosed space. Each time we exposed ourselves where they had supporting fire, we took heavy casualties.

I should have been more active in my defence. Although a bit of a risk, I should have deployed my 2ic and a half section with a truck with a civilian looking driver outside the perimeter. Their instructions would be to remain in the vicinity, probably in one of the high rise buildings. When they saw the enemy assault deploy, they would fire into their rear and then scoot, attempting to take up another position.

The 3D model showing the situation at
the end of  the Blue force assault


Thanks to Jim and CLWG for another interesting and thought provoking game.


* Determinist Wargame.
A game in which there is no dice rolling, and no turn by turn moves. There are some rules about locating units, about movement and about cyber defence and offensive actions. But these are really guidelines. Jim effectively made judgements on the most likely outcome of all conflict and fed back to the players.

** Back-to-Back, 
A game where the two sides are separated into two rooms with their map showing their deployment. The umpire/s move between the two rooms and give information about enemy movement, and action and any other outcomes and they take player orders and intentions and feed it to the other team's map.

Friday, 30 January 2015

A Story-Telling Game: Until we Sink

I have played my first "story-telling game," Until We Sink.

Which begs the first question, what is a story-stelling game?

Is it a role-playing game, is it a matrix game, or is it improv acting?

Well my first response is to note that "Until We Sink" is unlike any game I have ever played before.

I suspect that is it more like a murder mystery game, except that the scenario is open ended. A story-telling game does not provide a murder and a murderer, or secrets for each player. It just starts off a scenario and asks the players to explain the occurrences in a story that they collaborate in telling.

There is a structure to these game, there were some mechanisms, but there is no method to determine the outcome of our play except through talking.

To put it crudely there was no dice rolling or coin tossing or paper, stones, scissors means to resolve conflict or outcomes.

We just talked and created a story that all could agree was consistent and then we could move on.

Game Structure

The structure of the game:
  • each player has a character to role-play
  • there is a story background and an environment - this is provided as a text to be read out
  • the game is divided into turns, each turn being a day
  • each day, a new event occurs - a card is randomly drawn from a stack of event cards
  • the players can only interact at the end of each day on a verandah where we discuss the days events
  • the day (turn) ends when at least two players leave the verandah
  • the last day of the game starts when a particular event occurs
  • the game can only end when we find an agreed explanation or story for each of the events of the previous days 


Each player takes on a character from a set of character cards provided by the game.

Each character has a basic description about the person, and we are encouraged to colour and flesh this out with, a name, age, nationality, and character traits.

An example of a character card.

                     Eternal Backpacker (guest)

You have circled the globe, and ended up on this island

You are a free thinker, independent and a little shabby

You like to point out how square the other characters are


And that is about it. Apart from the event cards that are played each day.

The players then have to explain the new event, in the context of the whole story.

Example of an Event Card

                A theft of underwear.

One of the character's underwear disappears.

All the players roll dice.

The one with the lower roll is one change
of underwear short.

If more than one player rolls low, those
players should reroll.

Game Play

I will not give a blow by blow account of the game. Suffice it to say, we all had a lot of fun, laughs, funny accents and bizarre incidents, and consumed a couple of bottles of red wine.

My favourite story was how we resolved the above event card - theft of underwear. The manageress of the hotel owned up to stealing the one pair of underpants (boxers) that the South African eternal backpacker owned as she needed a flag for her healing ceremony. His boxers - only kept for best - had the South African flag printed on them.

Game Critique

My intention in running the game was to explore a game format unfamiliar to me, that was very light on rules and mechanisms, and was thus accessible to inexperienced players. I wondered if this game format could be usefully applied to a learning game for use in school rooms or other training situations.

All agreed it was fun. All agreed it was entertaining. I think the inexperienced players were a little worried about the requirements of an unscripted, loosely structured role play but they all grew into it and found it easier as the game progressed.

As for its potential as a learning game, I don't think it we could easily see an application. One person thought that children would find it difficult to "join" in and worry about "loosing their cool." I thought having one or two experienced role-players would help overcome this.

Another person thought that the learning aims of any game would have to be more tightly scripted. That each character would be given a secret or a skill that would link to an event card and that the event cards should be ordered to create a desired story.

One thought I had was that there was very little the players could do to influence events. We could not decide to act and then see the results of our actions. I had proposed a learning game scenario about a cyber warfare or cyber security. In this scenario the players would need to know if their actions, had stopped or prevented some incident. This sort of scenario would require a game director, or dungeon master or a facilitator. And then we are back to a matrix game, or a facilitated role-playing game.

We all agreed that it would be a great activity for a drama group, a English literature class exploring narrative, or an English language class.

In conclusion: I think the lightness of the game structure has a lot to commend this sort of game; quick to pick up, easy to play. I would suggest that if your teaching aim was not about acting or narration, it would have to be more tightly scripted and a facilitator added, even if they just act as prompt to nudge the play back to the learning aim objective.


Thanks to Nicki, Polly, Seth and Stuart for making this an excellent evening's entertainment and for contributing and staying a bit longer to add their criticisms of the game. And for travelling into central London from the suburbs.