Four Megagame Concepts

June 8, 2018

In this post I will outline concepts for four different Megagames that I might be spending some time on turning into fully developed games over the next 18 months or so. Feedback is most welcome.

1389442808118Watch the Skies: Dragons

This would be a fantasy hack of Watch the Skies, replacing Alien UFO attacks with Dragon attacks. The political scenario for the teams worried about Dragon attacks would be complicated by the adding a Dark Lady who is in the middle of an attempt to conquer and enslave the free world.

I expect the main game roles would convert as follows:

  1. The Scientist becomes a Sorcerer, and takes blood and bone from various slain monsters, plus lore rescued from dungeons, and uses that to research spells (because any sufficiently advanced technology resembles magic).
  2. The United Nations becomes the Grand Council, where the Elves, Dwarves, Free Men, etc all debate how to resist the Dark Lady, what should be done about the Dragon menace, and whether or not inconvenient bits of jewelry should be disposed of in far off volcanoes.
  3. Team leaders remain team leaders, but with more feudal titles and a fear of peasant uprisings. As with WTS, if there are a lot of players, then the espionage function can be taken over by another player.
  4. Military leaders have a dual role that could be split between two players. One role focus is on military operations with armies against the Dark Lady. The other role is focused on individual Hero characters challenging Dragons to fights, exploring dungeons for relics and lore, etc. To keep game play fast, two maps might be needed (and its established in fantasy that large armies find it impossible to find small bands of individuals bearing inconvenient jewelry).
  5. A merchant role focused on trade and the economy could be added, but is not essential.

The teams and other game elements would all be based on easy to recognise fantasy tropes, rather than any specific intellectual property. Possible teams include:

  1. The Elves
  2. The Dwarves
  3. The Crusaders
  4. The Fanatic Caliphates
  5. The Wandering Northmen
  6. The Vestigial Empire
  7. The Horse People.

main-qimg-2e8c75308a30514c28e19b94accd4dd1-cColossus of Atlantis III

My take on ancient Atlantis features giant robots, monsters, rival empires, and ever increasing DOOM threatening to sink Atlantis. Its been run a few times now, and with that experience (plus additional research on ancient Greece and modern boardgames about the Peloponnesian War) there are some significant changes I want to make.

  1. Better maps: I want to move away from abstract maps and make some useful game maps of the city of Atlantis, and the colonial regions of Libya, Asia, and Europa.
  2. More streamlined play: the current version of the game has too many resources (Talents, Cogs, Doom, Vril, Orichalcum, Cities, Armies, Fleets, Colossi) that do too many things and can be simplified. I think combat and monster hunting can also be refined into a card draw system that hides mechanics “under the hood”.
  3. Less is more: an overall reduction in the game components, and placing more emphasis on player driven creative injects into the game (e.g. players describe the Great Wonder they are building, Control then assigns cost and determines game effect from construction).
  4. Using the city map of Atlantis to allow for civil strife to be played out. Rather than moving units around city blocks (like the JUNTA boardgame) I think a drafting mechanism with cards and a large dose of uncertainty is the way to handle coup attempts. It also allows us to have the titular Colossus of Atlantis as a combat unit in the game.
  5. Changing how the factions and Councils work. The approach I want to try is for everyone to have ties to more than one faction, forcing some hard choices about ultimate allegiances in the endgame. Rather than having all players resolve map actions, then team time, then council actions, and then assembly votes (which takes a long time), the game structure will involve more parallel processing, e.g. you can choose to do one of managing your colony, leading an Atlantean army against a threat, monster hunting, or voting in council politics.
    1. One way of doing this may be to have each map elect a Council representative (or two). While being on Council gets you access to the levers of power in Altantis, it means your colonies are not being managed effectively.
    2. The big assemblies where changes are made to the “constitution” of Atlantis would only happen a few times in the game, rather than every turn.
    3. Big projects would be more of a case of the players describing what they want, and Control adjudicating.
    4. Adding a significant trading game – Atlantis needs grain from the colonies, otherwise there will be riots! Atlantis has “cash”, while the colonies have “resources”.
  6. Factions that the game could have include:
    1. Amazons (for the female players, supporting female emancipation and equal citizenship rights).
    2. Medes (a team that supports foreign intervention in Atlantis)
    3. Aristocrats (a team that supports the status quo of a weak High King of Atlantis, limited citizenship rights, and no votes for women)
    4. Monarchists (a team that supports a strong High King of Atlantis)
    5. Tyrants (a team supporting a strong military dominated or Spartan style government)
    6. Oligarchs (a team that supports reforming Atlantis to favour political participation of the wealthy)
    7. Democrats (a team that supports popular rule by male citizens)
    8. Telchines (a team supporting radical change through sorcery and technology)
    9. Cultists (a team dedicated to drowning Atlantis).

Draft-Map1The Reaching Moon

This would be a high fantasy scenario set in the Glorantha world originally designed by Greg Stafford, as represented in one the enduring roleplaying games from the 1970s, Runequest. I believe that a not-for-profit game would be okay under Chaosium’s fan permissions, but I would have to contact Chaosium for explicit authority before spending a lot of time on designing the game.

The big pro for using Glorantha is the incredibly rich detail of the setting.

The big con against using Glorantha is the incredibly rich detail of the setting.

I am still working my way through the PDF of the new Runequest rules that dropped last week, but I think a basic premise for the game would be setting it in the Kingdom of Tarsh, a client state of the Lunar Empire, which is the scene of a civil war with multiple factions. This would take place in the new advanced timeline, where the Dragonrise event and the liberation of Pavis and Prax from Lunar occupation has weakened the formerly dominant Lunar Empire.

The trick here will be in squaring the circle of a conflict with armies, in which individual heroes can be more powerful (with magic from otherworld mythic quests) than entire army regiments. Both need to be important, along with some logistic considerations and the intense diplomacy between all of the religious cults and political factions.

jc-mars1Mars 1938 (or The Queen of Mars)

The idea is inspired by the planetary romance genre, typified by the John carter “Barsoom” pulp novels, and in particular the roleplaying games Space 1889 and Rocket Age, which took the tropes of that genre and added steampunk and 1930s politics respectively. Old Mars is usually portrayed with a breathable atmosphere, but with a dying landscape littered in ancient ruins. This is the Mars of our imaginations, before the scientific probes of the 1960s revealed just how hostile and lifeless the planet is.

The key elements of this genre are Earth as a centre of technology and colonialism, with Mars as the exotic locale filled with hostile tribes and decadent monarchies (standing in for Africa and Asia). The pulp novels largely focus on individual male heroes and the exotic women that they meet and fall in love with. Swords are used a lot instead of modern weapons. For a megagame though, the enduring subject is going to be the encounter of alien civilisations, the difficulties in communicating, and the disasters that follow from misunderstandings.

One of the historical touchstones for the scenario would be the events associated with the Spanish Civil War, with its clash of ideologies (fascists, communists, socialists, anarchists, monarchists, Catholics, and regional independence movements) and foreign intervention (the international brigades, the Condor legion, League of Nation sanctions, etc). The other historical reference would be the relationship between China and other nations during its transition from Empire to Republic and collapse into Warlordism in the 1920s. This saw several wars (both with China and between the colonial powers), corruption influenced by the opium trade, secret societies, unequal treaties, palace politics, heroic sieges, rebellions, coups … all good stuff for megagames.

A note: if its the 1930s then there are Nazis, and in 1938 Adolf Hitler was Time magazine’s man of the year and not a contender for worst monster in history. I would be very explicit in the player briefing that no Nazi uniforms or insignia are to be worn in the game.

My first concept for turning this into a megagame is to focus on one large Martian empire, its internal factions, and the Terrestrial Powers. There can be a Indiana Jones minigame of rescue archaeology and ancient relics. The main game is then divided into three parts:

  1. The first stage of the game is the competition phase with three major components:
    1. The terrestrial powers are trying to gain ideological adherents among the Martian factions, and other goals such as more land, permission for missionaries, open trade agreements, arms sales, etc.
    2. The Martian Queen is attempting to introduce a constitution that can create a modern state system that can preserve Martian independence and the monarchy.
    3. The Martian factions are trying to influence the constitutions towards their own interests (like a game of Credo where Church factions argue at the Council of Nicaea), gain support from the pesky humans without alienating supporters, and gain control of recruits and weapons.
  2. The second stage of the game is the coup phase. This is when factions unhappy with the outcome of the first stage can stage uprisings and coups. This phase will be short and brutal.
    1. This is when we test for assassination – players that have betrayed their principles being more likely to be torn apart in mob violence. Player briefings would be upfront about the risk of character elimination (“Its like A Game of Thrones, on Old Mars”).
    2. The faction that does the best in stage one will control the Martian capital and likely be in the best position for the next stage of the game.
    3. At this point in time we break for lunch, assign new characters to anyone who has been assassinated, and set up the map for the next stage.
  3. The third stage of the game is the conflict phase. This is when we fight out the civil war, and see if any of the factions can achieve a military victory, or if a negotiated settlement occurs. The political actions from stage one will continue, allowing players to do special actions like opening the city gates in the middle of a siege, trigger peasant uprisings, or escape into a luxurious exile.

This was the most popular idea in the player poll at Wellycon, and its definitely the one that most captured my imagination this week.

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After Action Report – WTS: Cold War

June 4, 2018

On Saturday 2 June, Wellycon hosted its second Megagame. This year the Wellington Megagame Collective ran a Cold War adaptation of Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies game. This report is written from my perspective as overall Megagame control.

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Reactor meltdown in the Islamic Republics. Purple meeples are refugees. The poor refugees were kidnapped and gifted to the aliens. Alien “saucers” have landed everywhere – the black wooden blocks are their mission tokens.

Highlights

It was definitely an improvement on my past practice of doing almost all of the Megagame preparatory work myself, and instead having the tasks shared over a wider group of people at an earlier stage of development.

I spent a lot of time on the map, and I think it came out well, but could have been better. It is good to finally find a print shop that handle my weird requests. If I had a better idea of the table size I would have cut the map size down a bit. The map got a bit cramped in Europe – which had more detail than most WTS maps in order to reflect the Cold War geography.

Personal best moment for me was the Non-aligned Movement SOF team making first contact with a Medusan Jellyfish leader in Brazil, where the meeting ended with reciprocal xenophage (the humans ate an alien, and the aliens ate a human). This then became the pattern of human-alien interactions, which made the alien visit to the United Nations exciting (I had to interject a new rule “No eating Control”).

I quite enjoyed the spawning alien units at their undersea bases. While the Aliens did spread their crabs out to increase spawn, they did not reach the truly terrifying potential of matching a Magnificent drone (d12 unit) with a Queen, and spawning a vast horde. As it turned out a combination of tactical nuclear weapon depth charges and massed fleets was able to curb the death ray armed panzer crabs.

Listening to player stories in the pub later on was also a highlight.

Oddly enough the Cuban missile crisis just popped out in 1962 (first turn) just the way player actions and card choices worked.

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The USA-USSR standoff in Cuba was resolved diplomatically.

Problems

Attempts to playtest new mechanics failed. This is something the Collective needs to get better at, and in the long term I would like us to get a state where games are playtested long before we are making the commitment to run them.

Late registrations meant that two weeks prior to the game being run we were uncertain if we actually had the minimum numbers. It is going to be difficult to run Megagames independently of host conventions unless we can secure player registration that makes us confident that we can afford to pay for the venue hire. For host conventions, player registration is essential for confirming our space. Due to increased attendance at Wellycon, we only had half the space we had the year before. If another ten players had turned up, we would have been crowded (and the USSR would have had to share its space with another team table).

It also turned out that both players who said they were bringing +3 guests, were bringing the same set of people – so eight registrations turned into just four registrations. Probably the best way forward here, is to see if we can have an additional charge of $5-10 for when we are at events like this, as that transaction tends to reveal actual commitment.

Late registration also delays casting and team selection, which increases the difficulty of getting briefs to players. It was only after the game was run that I figured out I could customise Meetup.com to send emails to subsets of the attendees rather than spamming everyone.

We only had one media player. Alan did a herculean task in staying on top of everything and then giving a relatively good overview to everyone each turn. Better control over registrations, and more registrations early on will let us add more players to this role.

How did the Cold War adaptations work?

Special actions – players sat on some of these cards because they targeted too much pain at their own nation. I eventually decided to let players sell cards back to me a Resource Point each. In hindsight, I should have made a custom deck for each human team, where all of the actions made more sense for them to play. The Alien special action cards worked well.

UN – Control made it simpler than I had written it up and let the players talk.

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The Medusan Leader addresses the United Nations. “You eat! We eat!”

Military operations – this was the part of the game that took the longest to resolve. The Arms race (building units) could have been handled elsewhere (perhaps an action during team planning). The Logistics (movement phase) took a while because people built a lot of small units. Decision to not charge RPs to move made sense in a one year timescale and I am glad we did not have to figure that out midgame. The human interceptor game did not work out well – it took until the middle of the game for everyone to fully understand how it worked. One bit of feedback in the pub was that this section of the rules would have really benefited from a short explainer video. The aliens managed several 50+ terror turns and got more tech cards than all the human teams combined. This was also in part due to basing restrictions – the aliens were smart enough not to attack regions where everyone could intercept. I did internationalise a UK base towards the end of the game, but I think player actions disabled it fairly quickly.

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South America got hit hard by the Aliens.

Science – lack of alien tech meant most of the funky 60s tech never got finished. The Space Race mechanic worked, but could have been a little faster (either one less space on the track, or double the spaces and faster movement for everyone to feel a sense of progress). There were good Nobel prize awards (France for agriculture – research on Alien Foods). The Doomsday Clock could have had a little more mechanical heft, but it gave the media something to talk about, and helped some Control injects early in the game. The Aliens did so well they ran short of tech cards, and compounding the shortage was an insufficient number of a couple of key card types to finish some of their tech sheets. I did add more alien technology cards via non-player UK and as a bonus for SOF operations and victory against alien ground forces.

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At least one human team got Fusion Power, but no one copied the Alien Death Rays.

DEFCON – stayed at 4-5 for most of the game. The last two turns featured several nukes and a lot of open warfare (USA invasion of France, USSR invasion of China, India, Middle East) and a lot of die rolls where a “one” meant global nuclear war. So while the USSR and USA got away with a lot of invasions in the last turn, and some some emergency +! DEFCON cards, they could have ‘lost” the game there. It was noble of France and Indo-China not to return fire.

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Information Operations – these played fast (good) but players were frustrated at not being able to directly initiate specific zone actions (luck of the draw). People did have some DEFCON cards to get around this (and seeing how static DEFCON was for most of the game I could have had more of them). Playtesting how long this mechanic took would have made it better. Stability – was a prompt for control as to where to spawn refugees and revolutionary units. That worked well enough. Influence – privilege cards for dominating continent zones also seemed to work well.

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The Influence Operation table.

Player Feedback

Enjoyment: 4.8 out of five. So despite some problems everyone had a good time.

Briefings: 3.6 out of five. Room for improvement here – I need to delegate more of the writing burden.

Difficulty: 3.7 out of five (where one is too hard and five is too easy). I prefer too easy to to hard, Control can always add a little more chaos mid-game, but its much harder to make it simpler mid-game.

Rate of Play: 3.3 out of five. Close to the sweet spot of three, and if the military operations had been faster we would have been fine.

Control: 4.7 out of five. Great job everyone!

Involvement: 4.5 out of five. I did check up on players who seemed to be off to one side of the game to see if everything was okay, and they all confirmed they were having a good time.

Value for Money: 4.7. I did get feedback that people would have happily paid a bit more. One visitor who had played WTS in the USA said we had a really great set up. The average that players said they were willing to play for a day long game was $31, for a shorter game $19.50. Preferred length of games was just under six hours (we were closer to eight hours including registration, game, lunch break, debrief, and pack up).

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Alan, the hardest working journalist in the world. Not warm hat in keeping with the Viking theme of Wellycon.

Specific Feedback Comment

I forgot to tell people there were comment boxes on the back of their feedback forms, so we got a bit less text feedback this time. My comments follow in italics.

Keep: “I love the interactions between all the teams and how it was both individual and collaborative.”

Stop: “Nothing.”

Start: “Tighter turnarounds.”

Keep: “The real-world parts! Really cool to resolve the China/Cuban/etc crises.”

Stop: “The UN felt very disconnected from the rest of the game – maybe there’s a way to integrate it more.” Control was taking stuff that happened on the main map over to the UN table, and vice versa. There were a few important treaties too, especially the detente between the USA and USSR. 

Start: “More coming together during the game so everyone could be up to date on what happened.” A key part of how Megagames are different from boardgames is in not knowing everything that is happening, and finding your negotiations/map action have been overtaken by events elsewhere.

Keep: “Science track worked pretty well, would like to see more of that format.”

Start: “More media presence. I feel Alan was a bit stretched with being the only media person.” Agreed, there was no one else to cover the news of his assassination by Soviet agents.

Keep: “The ability to discuss outside the box ideas/turns with Control and their willingness to include them.” I think a key enabler for this, is to keep the overall game engine as simple as possible.

Start: “Control introducing events that change the nature of the game in interesting ways.” I prefer that players drive the game events. This avoids a sense of rail roading. We did do a few things, such as telling one of the French players that there was ancient alien technology inside him, and telling the aliens that the “cosmic seed” they were looking for was on Earth. If we had another completed another turn, these could have escalated the narrative.

Keep: “Combat system.” Well I am glad someone liked it!

Keep: “Open movement between tables except where thematic.” The USSR did try to persuade a couple of key players to a meeting behind the Iron Curtain, just before the USA-USSR combined offensive to purge Earth of alien clients, with a view to detaining the players. Wisely, they declined.

Keep: “Distinct roles.”

Start: “More distinct team leader role.” By not having a lot of mechanical levers to push, the team leader has time for the diplomacy game, and also time to be creative and take proposals for special actions to Control.

Keep: “In general it was excellent. All the mechanics that I saw were straightforward. the timing felt right.” A pub comment from the Soviet leader along the lines that every time he felt things were starting to drag, bing, that is when Control rolled the next turn forward.

Stop: “I felt that the unitary global terror index was a problem. Having all the global governments falling essentially due to actions solely in South America was unsatisfying.” There was a feedback loop from global Terror to zone stability – we reduced stability in the zones where the aliens were most active. The issue with local terror indexes, is that we might be eliminating individual team governments very early in the game. The USSR and USA are also global powers, with global interests.

Start: “Split global Terror per region.” See comment above.

Keep: “Egg-timers/limited time for wibbling.”

Keep: “teams.”

Stop: “All or nothing combat”. The combat was intended to encompass action over an entire year of real time. Army strength formations tend to suffer about 1% losses per day action. But the real reason was to KISS (Keep it simple). Something that would have followed the USA and USSR invasions if we had another turn was the uprising of revolutionary units in the regions they had occupied.

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Rolling the combat dice

Keep: “Nobel prize type nominations and scientific bragging.”

Stop: “No complaints.”

Start: “A little more involvement in strategy from science.”

Keep: “Influence [operations] area was super fun but a little less randomness on outcome would be great.” Because of the lack of playtesting, I built the outcome resolution for speed.

Stop: “Not stop, but the military role was clearly the hardest and the most time consuming. A way to lessen this slightly would be great.” Early briefings, video explainers, an extra Control body to help processing, and moving some functions elsewhere could all happen in a re-run of the game.

Start: “A more detailed combat rule set.” The problem with longer rules is getting people to read them. Short video clips is probably the way to communicate with the modern audience.

Keep: “Creative ideas.”

Start: “Communicating through email the roles (we didn’t realise until we arrived that we could have done more to dress up). More exciting happenings from Control.”

Thank you to everyone who provided feedback. We really appreciate it, and we hope we can use it to make future games better.

What next for the Wellington Collective?

First we have a well deserved rest from our small part in New Zealand’s largest gaming convention. We polled people on what game we should run next. First, the most unpopular designs were:

  1. Operation Unthinkable (USA+UK+allies versus USSR in July 1945)
  2. Shape of Things to Come (WWII as imagined by H. G. Wells)
  3. Invasion 2050 (a future war between Australia and New Zealand)
  4. Aquila Rift (tactical Space Pirates).

I am a little sad that the idea I had done the most preliminary research on (Operation Unthinkable) was the least popular, but I will just park it for the future.

The most popular designs were:

  1. Mars 1938 (A planetary romance on Old Mars, with Nazis)
  2. The Reaching Moon (high-fantasy in Glorantha)
  3. Colossus of Atlantis (giant robots in a doomed Atlantis)
  4. Watch the Skies: Dragons (a fantasy take on WTS, with Elves, Dwarves, Humans, a Dark Lady, and Dragon attacks to abduct princes and royal treasuries).

A will do a subsequent post offering a longer treatment of the four most popular ideas.


Hacking Watch the Skies

May 9, 2018

For its first Megagame, the Wellington Megagame Collective is adapting Jim Wallman’s Watch the Skies (WTS) game to a Cold War setting (WTS:CW). The game will be run at Wellycon on 2 June 2018. If you are interested in playing you can register here. Cost is $19 for the Saturday. This post explores the reasons for the changes we are making to the original WTS game in order to best fit the Cold War element.

Why hack WTS instead of just running the original game?

I can think of three reasons (1) because we can, (2) because we want to, and (3) because we need to.

One of the great things about manual games, like board games, tabletop roleplaying games and megagames, is that the mechanics are transparent to players. If you can play these games, then you understand them well enough to tweak them to your preferences. Computer games, however, tend to be black box technology that is harder to understand and hack.

In gaming, everyone builds on what has come before. There is very little that is new under the sun. Playing around and tinkering with new game concepts and the mechanics to play them is how we come up with cool new games to play.

Choosing the Cold War as a major thematic element of our game does require us to make a few necessary changes to make the game fit with the history, and some minor changes to help evoke the history of the period in the game.

Why the Cold War?

  • its an interesting period of history, lots of chrome for the UN and Science games, plus colour for the Special Action cards
  • a lot of period movies can be referenced, including a range of classic flying saucer and alien invasion movies, and the Dr Strangelove movie to capture the absurdity of mutually assured destruction
  • its an interesting design challenge – can we reproduce the mistrust and paranoia of the Cold War, give players nuclear arsenals, and reach the 1970s without nukes being used?

Choosing the starting year for WTS:CW – why 1962?

1962 is after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion (April 1961), before Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) and the assassination of JFK (22 November 1963). Its a time when the USA is a global hegemon, but the USSR is still seen as a credible challenger, not yet undermined by corruption and stagnation. By 1962 the old Empires of Europe have largely given way to newly independent nations, but France and the UK are still global powers with bases around the world. I think its a good point in time to drop the players – there is still a lot of scope for creative moves in the great game of geopolitics.

A note on game balance – in the early 1960s the USA had almost 40% of global GDP, and its government budget was over double that of the USSR (the CIA tended to significantly overestimate USSR economic and military strength) and perhaps ten times what the UK or France had. For balance purposes, the USA will start WTS:CW with only slightly more Resource Points (RPs) than the other teams, but dominates the initial influence rankings in many zones of the globe (which gives the highest influence team access to unique privilege cards). The Non-aligned Movement (NAM) will also be a more cohesive political bloc than it was historically, representing a third way alternative to the Super Powers (which France under Charles de Gaulle is also doing to an extent). The relative weakness of the minor powers is represented by imposing a permanent budget reduction if they build the largest size of Army/Fleet units.

WTS covers roughly three months of time per game turn. For WTS:CW I decided that a time scale of one year per game turn was needed in order to encompass the full range of events in the 1960s. It also means that success for the human teams is reaching the 1970s without alien invasion or nuclear armageddon occurring. A couple of changes follow from this. First, logistics is easier. Conventional units can be redeployed wherever you have bases, at no cost in RPs. This also frees up RPs for investment in the Influence game, otherwise overall RP incomes would need to be increased. Second, Public Relations (PR) is more forgiving. PR starts at zero, and can increase to +/- 9, but moves one space towards zero each turn. If PR is positive, +1 RP is gained to budget, and if PR is negative -1 RP is lost. The 1960s was a time of economic growth, and team RP budgets will probably increase during the game.

What features help make WTS:CW a Cold War game?

First, team briefings will highlight the ideological competition and the goal of having a better PR score than your adversaries, secure bases around the globe, and high influence scores in as many zones as possible. Because USA is in number one place at the start, they are the obvious target for all of the other teams. Players should be mistrustful and suspicious of other teams – I want to evoke the fear of the “missile gap” where everyone is worried the aliens are giving military technology to the other teams. An outcome where all the human teams hold hands and sing about the age of Aquarius in order to defeat the aliens should still be possible, but not the most likely outcome.

Second, the map. First, it uses the Cahill-Keyes projection rather than the Mercator projection in an attempt to minimise distortion of the parts of the map I expect a lot of the competitive play to take place in (Africa, Middle East, and Central America). Rather than the mix of colours in the standard WTS map, NATO regions are all dark blue, and Warsaw pact regions are Red. This is a visual signal to players – trying to establish bases or do combat in an opposing alliance region is high risk and can trigger DEFCON 1. The NAM regions are in green. Otherwise each zone has all of its regions the same colour. As with the normal WTS map, postage stamp size states are omitted, and in places several small states are merged together, with a few exceptions such as the French presence in Djibouti.

Note: for WTS:CW Egypt is in both the Africa and Middle East zones, and Turkey is in both the Europe and Middle East zones. The map below is a work in progress, lacking city names and PR/RP tracks.

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The Space Race is part of the Science game. It is handled by a secret RP bid from Scientists, with the winner advancing one space towards being the first to land on the Moon. Lower bids might get an advance, depending on how far back you are from the front runner. Each time you advance you get a choice of reward (PR boost, Influence boost, or Science Credits), with the rewards increasing the further down the track you have advanced.

There only five nation teams in WTS:CW. Many states are still recovering from WWII (e.g. Germany, Japan, Italy) or do not have enough political prominence yet (e.g. Brazil) or are outcasts from the international community (South Africa). It also reflects that I am only expecting 20-30 players, so I would rather not invest time building components that do not get used.

There are two forms of combat between conventional units: regular and irregular. Regular combat is the default system, irregular combat occurs if corporate or revolutionary units are involved. In irregular combat, results are indecisive, with limited casualties (to represent quagmires like Vietnam). In regular combat, the defeated side loses all of their units. Units will be represented with dice, with three sizes of dice (12mm, 16mm and 22mm). The largest dice are rolled first. Each team has only six of the largest dice, so will need to be careful about where they place them. I was influenced in this design choice by the use of dice to represent soldiers in an American Revolution megagame at GENCON last year (see image below).

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In the Influence game will be handled by either the head of state or an intelligence minister (depending on how many players the team has). The Influence game starts with a round of drafting Influence Operation cards, followed by resolving the operations. Each player gets a hand of cards, chooses one, placing it face up in front of them along with any Agents or RPs, then passes the remaining cards on clockwise. The last card is discarded rather than passed on.

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The cards have a hardwired action and target zone (see examples above). After all cards are tabled, they are resolved in the order they were played in. For each operation card an outcome card is drawn (see examples below). For quick play, one outcome card can apply to all of the player actions in that operation phase. The card specifies a success condition for the operation. The number inside the circle is how effective the action is – for an influence action its usually +1 or +2 influence, for a Base action it would be placing one or two Bases in the region. Actions that reduce other team’s influence automatically target the team(s) with the highest influence. Rare black circles indicate a penalty for failure.

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If you have the highest influence in a region, you gain its privilege card. This grants bonuses like:

  • a permanent +1 increase to RPs
  • 1d6 Science Credits
  • choosing a card from the discard pile for use next turn.

I am still working on what causes Stability to change, but it is likely to be a mix of inputs from UN crisis resolution, Terror Track thresholds, Special Action cards, and player actions (e.g. a rousing speech from a team leader may make the world a better place, or plunge it into chaos). The lower stability is, the easier Influence Operations become in a zone. So if you want to defend a region you dominate, you want high stability. If you want to degrade another team’s influence, then disrupting stability is the way to go.

For DEFCON and Nukes I am adapting a mechanic from the Twilight Struggle boardgame. If a team’s actions cause DEFCON 1 (global thermonuclear war) to occur, then they will be judged as losing the game. Political leaders control use of nukes at DEFCON 3-5, Military leaders control nuke use at DEFCON 2.

  1. DEFCON improves by +1 at the start of each turn.
  2. If the Super powers do not build any nukes, or large combat units, DEFCON improves by +1 that turn.
  3. Nuclear test ban treaties and similar actions can improve DEFCON.
  4. Several key actions cause a DEFCON check to be made. If a d6 roll is less than current DEFCON, then DEFCON is reduced by one. These actions include nuke use, direct combat between USA/USSR units, combat in NATO/Warsaw pact regions, coups (attempts to convert another team’s base into one of your own), and playing DEFCON Special Action cards.

The design intent is to allow some scope for player skulduggery, but for everyone to get very cautious about further provocations when DEFCON reaches 2.

We are still three weeks away from running WTS:CW, so all the above might be changed or dropped if playtests show its not working, but the rules and briefings will all be locked down a week out from the game.

What is not changing?

If it is not mentioned above as being hacked, it is being kept from WTS with as few changes as possible. In particular I am doing nothing to the key UFO mission/human interception mechanic, as it is a thing of beauty and underpins the entire game. The process for researching new technology is the same, we changed a few names to reflect the 1960s and added some weird science options and a unique technology for each team.

What about the aliens?

Without giving the twist away, we are not using the default WTS peace-loving Rigellians. As our media references for the 1950s and 60s include a lot of flying saucer attacks and alien invasions, the human teams should be prepared for the worst.


Ready Party One

April 23, 2018

A campaign premise I sometimes pull out and tinker with is “Humanity has fled the destruction of Earth, and now exists in one refuge system.” A static version of Battlestar Galactica without the wagon train to the stars aspect. I sometimes pair this with options like:

  1. All high technology has been disabled by the energy fields that protect humanity.
  2. Some high tech has been disabled (anything that generates signals that the Enemy might detect). Cue some kind of Thought Police/Inquisition to making sure no one dares reinvent the radio.
  3. Human high technology lasts for a while, enabling a dictatorship over other sentient folk in the refuge (each of which has their own way of surviving incursions like the humans until business as usual can resume).
  4. Because other aliens have also done (3) there are a lot of vestigial empires and associated ruins.
  5. Many habitable worlds in the system (due to forerunner engineering) all linked by portals, or by limited space travel. With lots of relic scavenging – like Alistair Reynolds novel Revenger (2016).

Today’s addition to the toolbox is to make the sanctuary a crapsack world, a bit like Ready Player One, where the alternate VR is an attractive past time for the 99% of humanity living on soy paste and recycled water. The twist is that completing quests/dungeons in the VR activates portal travel or other Macguffin devices (or a nice meal, or the admiration of NPCs who watch the stream on replay channels). So in a campaign, you start playing the hard SF game, then when you need to get from A to B in a hurry, you log into the VR and do a quick mythic mode instance and off you go.

The VR is where the former alien hive minds/AIs get to experiment and interact with humanity in a safely contained system. Cue factions and conspiracies dedicated to finding out what is really going on/keeping the truth hidden from the sheeple.

The VR could be divided into nice little theme parks. Samurai World is right next door to Musketeer World and West World, and maybe the bleed over into each other in a few places. Maybe with a bit of digging you can figure out how to access the old forgotten alien VR realms, where the stories are completely different from those nice comforting fairy tales from Earth, where the plucky hero always wins the rematch.

I think the campaign would work well with a mix of game systems. Something crunchy for the “real” world (Eclipse Phase?) and something simple for the “fantasy” world, which could easily be D&D or something a few more baroque buttons and dials like Blades in the Dark. Not more than a one page PC sheet, and damn easy to create a new VR PC as required.

I should note that I have not actually read Ready Player One or seen the recent movie.

 


d100 House Rules

March 18, 2018

I am mucking around with a few rule variants for d100 roleplaying games.

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You can’t beat the classics.

Fatigue

I have never met a player who enjoyed tracking encumbrance and fatigue, and I do not enjoy it much as a GM either. I had a lightbulb moment today, and started riffing off the morale rules in Moldvay D&D for a Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition hack intended for a Megadungeon crawl.

Test for fatigue when (a) the first PC or foe is eliminated from the combat and (b) when half of the people involved in the combat have been eliminated.

Resolve the test by rolling 1d100 versus CON. Add an advantage die if fresh (first encounter of the day) or unencumbered. Add disadvantage dice for heavy armour, exhaustion and other factors:

  1. Success – keep fighting
  2. Failure – add a disadvantage die to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter
  3. Fumble – add two disadvantage dice to all skill checks for the rest of the encounter.

Pro – low amount of bookkeeping required, Con – does add a process step mid-scene where everyone needs to roll dice and record a result. The table also needs some shared expectations around when the disadvantage dice get added to the CON check – which requires the GM or game system to signal clearly when they think the PCs are tired or trying to carry too much stuff around.

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Art from the cover of the Conan 2d20 rules.

Mastery

In Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition you score a critical success on a roll of 01%, and fumble on a roll of 96-00%. Which tells you a lot about that game system. Thinking about the Conan 2d20 momentum system inspired me to try adding a second threshold for critical success, and giving player’s more tempting opportunities to spend Luck Points to adjust d100 rolls (using an optional rule, possibly from Pulp Cthulhu).

A critical success is scored on a roll that exactly matches the skill level, or when a roll is made equal or less than the skill’s mastery level.

For example, if the reckless swordsman Fitz the Harsh has a skill of 92% and a Master of 06%, then Fitz scores a critical success on a roll of 01-06 or 92, a success on a roll of 07-91, a failure on a roll of 93-95, and a fumble on a roll of 96-00.

Using the optional Luck point system, you can spend 10 Luck Points to cancel a fumble, or shift any other die roll by one per Luck Point you spend.

Mastery does not increase the way normal skills do. So far my thoughts are:

  1. Start with 01% mastery in the PC’s eight archetype/profession skills.
  2. Gain 01% mastery when Skill level reaches 90%.
  3. GM discretion to grant a point of mastery for milestone achievements in the campaign.
  4. Otherwise mastery improvement requires rolling fumbles equal to the current mastery level to gain +01%. Note: this assumes a table play style where a fumble is adding a complication to the scene (e.g. a dropped weapon), rather than an opportunity for the GM to hammer the character into the afterlife (e.g. an arrow to the eye socket).
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Card from the Dungeon Solitaire deck – available from Thegamecrafter

Initiative

As part of PC generation I am thinking of having the players draw three major arcana cards to represent past, present and future. While I originally thought of just using this for inspiration in shaping the character concept, today I thought of using it to help shape initiative.

  1. A player draws three major arcana cards (there are 33 in the deck I intend to use). If any of the three cards match PC cards, the party as a whole holds initiative and the PC(s) with matching cards gain a bonus action they can call on at any point during the encounter.
  2. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC nemesis level opponent (Skills at 90%+) the nemesis gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  3. If the PCs do not have initiative and there is an NPC elite level opponent (Skills at 50%+) the elite gains initiative now, otherwise repeat step one.
  4. If the PCs do not have initiative after nine card draws, the NPCs have initiative.

Initiative is then run using the “popcorn initiative” rule, where the last person to act in the scene chooses who acts next. The last person to act in a round gets to choose who acts first in the next round. Note: there are obvious ways of manipulating this system, lets call it “tactics” and not worry about people setting things up to get two attacks in a row.

An obvious tweak to represent surprise or preparation is adjust the number of cards the party gets to draw.

 


Megagame plans for 2018

March 2, 2018

This is what I hope to achieve in the Megagame space in 2018:

  1. Set up a Wellington area collective of people interested in designing, testing, and running Megagames.
  2. Run Watch the Skies at Wellycon in June.
  3. Run a revised version of Colossus of Atlantis in the second half of 2018.

Last year I had hoped to do a megagame of Operation Unthinkable (an alternate history scenario where the USSR and USA/UK fight a war in central Europe in 1945) in late 2018. I am being more realistic about how much I can get done, and this is now more likely to be a project in 2019.

Wellington Megagame Collective

I want to run Megagames that work as good games and are a heap of fun for the players. But I need help. The volunteers I have had for Control in running games have been fantastic, but running The Galaxy Will Burn taught me that I need to ask for more help earlier in the process in order to make the final game a good one, with all the supporting logistics sorted out ahead of time.

So if you would like to be involved, send me an email at grand.vizier@gmail.com. I will be looking at setting up some kind of discussion meeting later in March to handle the basics of group name, purpose, how the money gets handled, and what kind of initial structure is needed. I’d like Watch the Skies to be the first group effort.

Watch the Skies

Watch the Skies (WTS) is the most famous megagame design in the world right now. I think a factor in its popularity is that its so easy to build on the template of “today’s world” plus “mysterious aliens”. The aliens can be friendly, they can be hostile, they can be divided into factions, or anything else that Control’s imagination can come up with. At GENCON the aliens were there to cover the genocide of the Dinosaurs, which required drilling down through Italy into the planetary core to retrieve their old Doomsday machine.

Image result for cold war alien ufo movie tv

My initial concept for WTS is to set it during the early Cold War – taking inspiration from the movies of the 1950s and 60s rather than more recent media like the X-Files and UFO TV series. So rather than multiple teams of similar sizes, its more likely to be two large teams (USA and USSR), the alien team, and a number of smaller teams (US and USSR ally states or more non-aligned nations like India or China). I will take input and refine the idea from whoever volunteers for the Collective, as figuring out how the aliens will slot into the game is important.

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Colossus of Atlantis

main-qimg-2e8c75308a30514c28e19b94accd4dd1-cOver the next few months I intend to revise Colossus of Atlantis for a game in Wellington in the second half of the year, building on the feedback and experience from last year. I have been doing some more reading of Greek history, and looking at how several games about the Peloponnesian War have handled things like city-state politics and battle resolution. At a high level the changes I want to make are:

  1. Reduce the overall number of game components, while expanding the opportunity for player creativity when it comes to designing and building Colossi, Wonders, Spells etc.
  2. Have a Junta style map of the city of Atlantis, with the potential for street battles there between different factions to change the government. The image above gives you an idea of the city layout, although its dimensions are a bit off and there is at least one too many rings compared to Plato’s description.
  3. More detailed continent maps, so “Libya” actually looks like North Africa.
  4. More emphasis on the kind of political factions found in Ancient Greece, e.g. Oligarchs, Democrats, Tyrants, Medes, etc. The factions struggle to control voting blocs in Atlantis, and to control the semi-autonomous Atlantean colonies.
  5. Emphasising the role of fear, interest, and honour identified by Thucydides in triggering conflicts. I may frame Atlantis as being at the height of its power, with the rival empires as the rising challenges to Atlantean supremacy (to echo current real world politics a little). For dealing with the rival Empires I want to have a simple global map, so all up there will be three levels of map in the game: globe, continent, and Atlantis. The globe map may include a hollow earth section.
  6. Changing the structure of play away from 20 minutes for each of the Map Phase, Team Phase, and Council Phase to one where the play at Map tables can proceed in an asynchronous fashion (i.e. if one map table gets its turn done quickly, they move onto their next turn rather than waiting for everyone else to catch up). After an hour of play there would be a half hour break for diplomacy, snacks and toilet breaks ending in the Assembly phase where votes are resolved on important matters.

Quite a bit of work to do there, which is another reason to run WTS in June. Also, if you have recommendations for venues in the Wellington area, please let me know. The ideal venue is available for an all day hire, has a large hall with a kitchen, toilets, and a side room or two, and needs to be priced around $200. I think the price is largely going to restrict us to Church and community halls.

 


The Galaxy Will Burn AAR

January 28, 2018

The Galaxy Will Burn megagame was run at Kapcon on Saturday 20 January. This is my after action report. The player facing game files can be found here and the Control brief can be found here. We had a larger Control team than last year, but did not sell out all of the player positions, so a couple of the Control team got to play in the game. Overall we were up on numbers from 2017.

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Red Rocket by Nigel Sade, used under license.

The game was to a large extent dominated by a slight majority of players both wanting to play aliens rather than humans, to belong to secret factions and being willing to betray their public factions. This set the scene for a late game rebellion by the Alien Liberation Front, which led to a climactic battle at the Imperial capital, with the rebellion being crushed (partly from an unlucky mix of low value cards, and an opponent drawing three Aces and holding an Ace Pilot privilege card to turn all three Aces into value 10 cards), but the overall position of the empire ended up with the humans giving away their dominant position. But it was a loyal alien admiral who saved the empire. From a design point of view, some things worked well, others did not. I will address that in the feedback sections below.

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Group photo of the participants

My thanks go out to the Control team for their time, my partner Catherine for her patience in the weeks leading up to the event, and for the support that we had from Battle Kiwi, who made our laser cut tokens, Kapcon, for giving us a venue to use, and The Caffeinated Dragon, Cerebus Games and Counter Culture for advertising our event. My plan going forward is to form a collective in Wellington to work together on future design, development, production and execution of Megagames. The work load I took on was a bit too much. In particular I need to allow more than three months lead time for development and playtesting. I am hoping that our first collective Megagame will be Watch the Skies at Wellycon in June, followed by a new version of Colossus of Atlantis in the second half of 2018.

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End of the game – Earth has upgraded orbital defences and most of the Imperial Megaships defending it against the alien menace.

Some headline numbers from the feedback forms:

  • Enjoyment: a mean score of 4.6 out of 5 indicates that most people had a good time. The lowest score was a three from a Politician. Last year for Colossus of Atlantis, the comparable score was 4.7.
  • Briefing: about 86% of the players read the rules before the game. A mean score of 3.75 out of 5 indicates that there is still scope for improvement here, but it is a small improvement on the 3.3 for Colossus last year.
  • Difficulty: a mean score of 3.1 is almost unchanged from the Colossus score of 3. The range of scores, however, was wider, with both a 1 (too easy) and a 5 (too hard).
  • Rate of Play: with a mean of 2.6, The Galaxy Will Burn had more time pressure on the players than Colossus, which had a mean score of 3. In particular, the politicians had a lower score here, with a third of the politicians rating it a 1 out of 5 for too much time pressure.
  • Control: a mean score of 4.3 is close to the 4.6 score from 2017.
  • Value for Money: a mean score of 4.7 matches the Colossus score for 2017. Despite this, the overall amount of money people indicated they were willing to pay was down on 2017 – $28 for a day game (down $5) and $22 for an evening game (down $1).

As is my usual practice, I asked for free text feedback written by the players for the three categories of Keep, Stop, Start.

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Imperial Capital – everyone points dramatically at the Deep State.

Player Feedback – things to KEEP in the Megagame

Gaining actions. The brutal time pressures. Legislative governing system. Massive fleets. All of it. Interesting and varied crises. Original mini-games. Lack of reliable information between game rooms. The political system was very satisfying and even. Secret factions. Cards unexpectedly changing gameplay. Bribing the press. Pregame information. Distinct and interesting factions. Everything. Jenga towers not too influential (a good thing). Card deck as a randomizer. The separated play areas was good. Separation of map and political game. Faction legacy rewards.

Its worth remembering that different players can like and dislike the same features of the game.

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Carefully making sure the Quadrant economy did not collapse.

Player Feedback – things to STOP in the Megagame

Strong Emperor. Privilege cards requiring alien starbases. Awkward distribution in set-up. Third choice roles. Remove nonsense role/faction/race combinations. For hidden roles, knowing who they are at the start. Vague and different rules from sector to sector, felt like a separate game. Media interference slowing game turns. Align player sheets to game rules. Too much voting. Randomness in legacy was too much. Jenga was time wasting. Wrong rules and changing rules. For secret faction members, being moved between quadrants sucked, plans ruined. Media interviewing players mid-action. Players hoarding megapower tokens. In-faction communication was poor. Left players playing their own game.

A few comments in response from me:

  • A few players got third choice roles because almost no one ranked politician as a first choice. People usually got a preferred faction or friend in their faction.
  • Rule inconsistency – even with a Control playtest a week before game day some bits of game play were not perfectly aligned across all the rooms.
  • More playtesting would have led to better balance in the privilege cards and token economy.
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Political values chart – this would have worked better if projected on a wall for easy reference by players and Control

Player Feedback – things to START in the Megagame

Reduce turn length and number of actions. Less randomness in combat, add a bluff mechanic. More solid rules for players and control. Knowing what to do/firm targets rather than vague paragraphs. Clarity for battleship set up. Politicians can sometimes look into sectors. Rules for amendments. make the political round shorter (although it was fixed). Increase secret faction influence on game play. Incentives to defect from faction. Having a chaos element. More inter-room interaction. Allow more actions (accumulated to many privilege cards).

A few comments in response from me:

  • The combat mechanic did not scale well with the size the fleets eventually ended up at – most of the playtests only went through two game turns, not the half-dozen we finished on game day.
  • It was a deliberate choice to keep objectives and “victory” more about narrative quality rather than a numerical output from game mechanics.
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Final Blame Scores. The faction with highest blame could not be appointed as Strong Emperor.

Control Feedback

After the game was packed up most of the Control team went along to a local pub for a debrief. We had picked up on a lot of the same issues that the players identified:

  • Time Management: More interaction was needed between the Imperial capital and the Quadrants. There was minimal impact until right at the end. This was partly due to the political mini-game taking a lot more time to get through than I had anticipated. This led to turns taking longer to get through and a reduction in time for diplomacy. It was also partly due to the Media talking to politicians when Control needed to be resolving game mechanics with the players. Its been more than a decade since I last experimented with media player roles, and we need to find a better way to utilise the role – part of which is to give media other things to do in-game, such as running a twitter feed or printing hard copies of media information.
  • Control: could have had the Crisis Control role doing a bit more to help with the imperial capital political game, and I think we could have had an additional control player just to handle factions (secret factions, changing factions and faction legacies). We are not at the player numbers where we can afford to have a Control player for each faction.
  • Mechanics that did not work: Centralisation and Decentralisation looked exciting on paper but in play had no effect.
  • Crises: feeling from Control was the number and degree of impact on the game could have been increased. The A5 templates could be increased to A4 in size.
  • Sound system: worked and was essential, volume could have been a little higher.
  • Too many tokens: the number of Battleships could have been reduced by half, and the fountain of megapower tokens into the game could have been reduced by a third. The approach I used in TGWB and Colossus where players can buy large numbers of privilege cards is not working well – too many cards, and not enough cards actually getting used.
  • Fleets and combat: it was too hard to actually destroy Starbases, making most combats indecisive.
  • Information tracks: most map tables started writing glory scores on the white boards. It would have been useful to have additional tracking sheets for relative control of sectors/hyperlanes and faction initiative. Stands for map roles that could change hands were useful. If we had player shields to screen hidden information, bulldog clips could be used to put information like that on the side of the screen visible to other players.
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A typical quadrant map in the middle of the game.

That is all for now, feel free to add comments if you played in the game. I would in particular appreciate on the following elements of the game:

  • Megaships – were they awesome, or just annoying?
  • Strong Emperors – did they add to the game or detract from it? If you were a Strong Emperor, was it fun?
  • using the Jenga towers to represent the economy – was drawing the blocks exciting or frustrating?

Looking ahead to 2019, because of a clash with other hobbies, I will be looking at running a game in mid-February rather than late January. I would be interested in hearing if a shift away from Kapcon and Wellington anniversary weekend would make it easier or harder for players to attend.