Barracks Emperor AAR

The Barracks Emperor megagame was run on Saturday 16 October 2021, with 32 players in the Newlands Community Hall, and another nine online players. Most of the briefing materials for the game are available on my website. In this post I will give a brief overview of events from the game, and then go through a lot of the player feedback. I have another post planned that will go into the weeds on the design of specific mechanics and how well they worked.

Orient Map with web camera mounted on a tripod.

The game started in 249 CE, with Rome celebrating its 1,000th anniversary. Then in quick succession the empire is struck by plague, and invasions by Franks, Goths, and Sassanids. With each game round representing three years, we played through to approximately 265 CE, by which time the Roman Empire was doing a bit worse than in history, as the Goths had managed to take Rome, bribe the Senate into ratifying a Gothic Emperor, and then handing out enough imperial real estate to make the other Gothic players Senators. All things considered, ceding Dacia to the Goths in the first game round may have been a mistake.

Goths with their loot from Rome, northern Italy is a bit pillaged.

Meanwhile in the Orient, the Palmyreans (Yellow) had successfully played off all of the other factions, looted the Sassanid home regions, and managed to move into the vital province of Egypt. While the Emperor (Blue) had led a large army to the East, they might have been better off defending Rome, but not even the leadership of Empress Decia Britannicus Maximus was enough to turn the tide. The Sassanids had managed to take Armenia and the other northern buffer states.

A large cube represents a legion or equivalent force. Smaller cubes represent light infantry or auxiliary forces. A disc is a cavalry force. The white wooden walls represent extensive border defences, while the castles represent city walls.

Other minor catastrophes included a rebellion by poor farmers in Sicily, and nomad raids into the African provinces, the Picts crossing into Britannia, and the Franks settling in Belgica. There were about five Emperors during the course of the game, although Emperor Philip the Arab lasted into the third game round, doing much better than their historical counterpart.

Apart from losing half of Britain and Gaul, and letting the Franks pillage Italy, at least Hispania has been defended.

Player Feedback on the Game

The players generally enjoyed the game, with a median score of 4.44 out of a possible 5. All of the online players who submitted feedback rated the game a 5 for enjoyment. The briefing information had a score of 4 out of 5. The Difficulty rating was 3.04, very close to the Goldilocks rating of 3. Rate of Play was 3.69, so the game was on the slow side. The Control team were rated 4.35 for their job. Player involvement was rated at 4.23. Value for money was rated at 4.65.

My thanks go to David, Dutton, Kerry, John, Scott, and Jeb for volunteering to play control, and to Alasdair Muir, Ben, Bernard Ganley, Clarence Beaks, Io Brindle, John Morton, Thomas Cole, Madeline Collins, Max, and Scott Daly for help with playtesting. I also thank Dr Hamish Cameron for loaning me two books on Queen Zenobia and the Sassanid Empire. As always, any mistakes in the game are on me and not these fine people.

A Weekend of Megagames

Rather than ask the usual question of what price people thought was fair for a day long megagame, we asked what a fair price was for a weekend of megagames. The median value was $NZ75.64 (approximately 40 GBP or 54 USD). The price selected by about one third of the responses was $NZ60. Overall though, the number of people willing to commit to a full weekend was too low for it to feel like a viable event – only the Saturday game was of real interest.

Printing and other costs have been going up, and inflation looks like it will be 5% this year. So I have signaled that the cost for megagames I run next year will be NZ$25. The major costs for this event were hall hire (a bit under $200), printing (about $500), MDF tokens (about $150), and pizza for the control team (about $150). My thanks to Alasdair Muir, Aaron Lavack, and Paul Compton for being generous patrons.

After chatting with a few people, we think the best course of action for 2022 is to hope for vaccine rates to improve and aim for four games a year, with one roughly every three months. I will be posting a call for people interested in designing megagames for a pitch session before Christmas – if I try designing four megagames in one year, my wife will not be happy with me!

Keep, Stop, Start

On our feedback forms people can write free text to tell us things from the megagame to keep, things to stop doing, and things to start in future games.

Keep Feedback

There were several favourable comments on the combat cards and battle system.

I really enjoyed the combat system, the picking a unit type made upsets possible even against superior forces. As you never really got an army massacred (or at least we didn’t maybe it happened to Rome as we crushed them) it made loss in battle not feel as bad if you got unlucky.  

The policy system also received positive comments. I was pretty happy with this as its about where 30% of my design time went (with the combat system and game maps being the other two big time sinks).

I really liked the policy card deckbuilder mechanic, was itching for more new cards etc to show up. Could be a really good unified mechanic where for example trade and inflation affect it rather than being separate tracks. Deciding what cards to pay for could be more agonising tho, we were often able to just play everything relevant.

Everyone really enjoyed the policy phase as it was exciting to see what would come out and the teams got to get together and make some meaningful decisions that really impacted the game state. I think in a future game giving the teams less RP’s would be good as over on the orient map we often had more than enough to do everything we wanted each turn. Would have been a little more interesting if a team really had to scramble to get the RP’s they needed, having to chip in their own wealth or constantly petition the Senate for more RPs.

Most of the new cards were in the Roman Imperial Reforms deck, which only a few of the players would have spent much time with.

The Imperial Unity Track. The Bronze SPQR Eagle was made by an artist in Russia. The Black spots at the 50 point thresholds were trigger points for mutinies. Note the frustrating printing error on the 30 point line. Final Unity was below 50, as the sack of Rome dropped Unity score by half.

Stop Feedback

The less fun part of the feedback to read, but often the most important for better games in the future. Players are always right about problems. The normal text in the bullet point list below is the verbatim feedback, anything following in italics is a comment from me:

  • Very complex aspects of rules. We have a short time to read the rules, absorb the naunces, etc. Less is more. The player interactions more than make up for the simple rules mechanics.
  • Wearing masks, hot, hard to communicate, very long time in them. Bring on vaccs rates and lowered levels.
  • Resource and wealth transfer (we did not build the economy into a spreadsheet, so to transfer tokens between physical and online factions required instructions over discord, and then taking photos and uploading them to confirm transactions had gone through)
  • Demotion when killed, could be cool to potentially end up with a very different (perhaps stronger) character (this would have definitely helped the Romans, who started the game with worse generals than all the non-Roman factions)
  • Barbarian King having full control of other factions troops – possibly require consent to use them. In general, the Goth King removed other Goth players’ feelings of agency as factions would negotiate directly and they could move others troops. (Barbarian King having full control over troop movement is not what was intended in the rules, they should have only had full control over replacements.)
  • The money mechanic for barbarians did not add much. (It had three functions: determining who was King, as a scoring metric, and for conversion into RPs in the planned late game Barbarian RP shortage. It could also be used for bribes and some conspiracy actions. If we had players for the Franks as well, wealth would have been more of a horse race)
  • Having some people online and some in the room. Feels like it adds lots of hassle but not much benefit. (We needed a third Control on the Orient map for the Romans. Its noticeable in the feedback that the online players were happy with the hybrid format, but the in person players were less happy. The hardest role in the game was probably that of the Palmyrene team member who was their only person in the hall, with the rest of the team online. I also note that there was just one volunteer to play in person diplomats for the online teams.)
  • The massive randomness when it comes to battles. Some randomness is great but felt this was too much. I’m not sure the online players added much.
  • Inflation seemed a bit much. (Yes, inflation sucks. The debasement of the Roman currency and the subsequent inflation is a major economic event in the period. Inflation was very low in the game compared to playtests. In one playtest Inflation went from 10 to 13 in the first game round alone!)
  • Online players.
  • If people are online I think its best if they are not expecting to interact heavily with live players. Its quite hard to be online & IRL simulataneously. Perhaps they can make one offer via control but not direct negotiations. (Post game feedback, we think that online players are best suited for asymmetric roles, e.g. Gods on Mount Olympus, or Megacorporation AIs, with their own core subgame that interacts indirectly with most of the other subgames)
  • Parts of the game that don’t add majorly to the play / seem tangential / un-needed complications (but which parts?)
  • Lots of freeform actions every turn – the problem is that you never really get a feel for if they were useful / impactful, and particularly when you’re submitting things you don’t know how they go. Maybe reduce the number of them to allow them to be more impactful? I dunno. (Most factions had one special action per game round. As Plot Control, I tried to give feedback on outcomes for all special actions. The most common special action was probably assassination attempts, which were mostly unsuccessfulin the modern era only about 25% of assassination attempts succeed, and its harder in the ancient era as you do not have explosives or firearms.)
  • Realistic map spaces looked painful to fit pieces into. (The large leader tokens did not work – they needed specific names on them. If I run this game again I would look at a separate map for Italy, and an Orient map that focuses more on the central corridor between Antioch and Cetisphon.)
  • I think that there should be at least one option for the player who moves first to have some initiative in terms of battles. Our enemies could always pick and choose what battles to fight and where, making it very difficult for us to gain a true upper hand. I believe the Roman players did not have a great battle strategy in the orient, or we would have been wiped out (or as close as we could have been). They should have been able to mass armies that had huge advantages for nearly every battle, where it would then just come down to dice. I know the Romans should have a tactical advantage for being Rome but at least in the orient it felt bad to be the strongest faction with most prestige and still have very little control over the war other than just trying to bait them into battles in bad spots. (The initiative sequence was chosen as the best reflection of historical events. At least one faction used a special action to flip the initiative sequence for a game round. I’ll say a bit more on how we might change this below).
  • Obviously my playthrough of this was as an Online player. I would say not having individual goals for the online players. Something else for them to try and scheme about and go for. I would also say I struggled to know who the Roman blob was. They didn’t seem to have any individuality to them. (Although it did make it seem realistic as well.) (A problem for the non-Roman factions is the lack of information about the personalities and life events. I also decided not to over complicate the online game due to its experimental nature.)
  • Battles in both Barracks and [Romance of the] Seven Worlds were basically based on a lucky dip – if it was a light infantry battle, your opponent with 3 light infantry had a bonus over your 2 light infantry, even if you also bought 10 cav and 10 heavy inf. And then, after the battle, you destroyed one, maybe two of the enemy units, irrespective of whether it was a 20 v 20 battle or a 2 v 2 skirmish which is pretty anitclimatic. The space one had a similar issue, as anyone who participated in the attack on the capital planet knows – the great rebellion with a huge armada just ended up being an anti climactic 1 v 1 that was decided based on who got lucky with what card was drawn, and nobody actually ended up dying. That combo of reducing big apocalyptic battles to near irrelevance + randomly making most of your army redundant leads to some pretty counterintuitive and lackluster battles. (The design goal was to emphasize combined arms, and operationally the best approach was intended to be spreading you “bets” across multiple encounters. The number of large battles in the period 235-285 CE was small – about 26 battles with more than a few legions. The Romans had a strong military philosophy of avoiding risky battles, fighting with fire and famine rather than the sword, and their historical disasters reinforced this. If players want more emphasis on big battles, then the game system needs to such that it only generates a very small number of battles each game round.)
Faction RP income had a fixed component, and a variable component (die roll, potentially with advantage/disadvantage). Romans could also mint coins for bonus RPs, but this risked inflation.

Start Feedback

This feedback is usually a lot more fun to read.

  • More dice throwing, chance, rogue events and cliffhangers to generate even more tension. (My own preference is that unless the rogue events are common in the fiction or history, is for these to emerge from player actions or player initiated special actions, with event injects from Control only as a last resort for a stalled game)
  • Better play location flow/control so they are all at the right places as turns are processed. (While the movement combat system worked, it did not work well enough, and we only got through the first half of the game – so players did not get to see how terrifyingly strong the late game Roman army gets. For our next game we will be trying to secure amp/speaker/microphone and I am looking at buying a projector to better display game time to players)
  • Some way of forcing interactions with other players in diplomacy. Giving stronger directions to players who don’t roleplay so easily or don’t understand the rules. Maybe FACTION secret objectives.
  • Faster turns – strict timers. Goth players did not feel like they had much of a role until they sacked Rome. Their goals were achieved easily and became a bit repetitive. (If I ran the game again with the same number of players, I would be tempted to make all the player roles Roman and Palmyrene, with Control handing the non-Roman factions).
  • More tools to keep to time/add time pressure. (For my next design, I will look at resurrecting a classic mechanic. Teams take turns at the map table. At the start of your turn, your commander issues orders for a minute. Commanders then have two minutes to resolve moves and attacks – with no conferring with team members. At the end of your move you leave the table, but can leave one player behind to silently observe the actions of other teams. The main limit of this mechanic is you can only have about five teams per map table.)
  • Guidance for how to make federated generals? Although for the time period this was fine. (This was on the Roman Imperial Reform cards, I should have put the information into the Goth briefing more clearly.)
  • The issue was that the Goths basically achieved objectives in turn 2 (end of turn 1 really) but maintaining advantageous peace was boring at a meta level. Not sure how to solve this really or if it needed to be solved.
  • Better time management.
  • Another sink for money, e.g. dice increase. (Classic money sinks for the Roman era include building monuments, temples, and sponsoring games, but the Barracks Emperor period was such a disaster that these activities stopped happening. I could include it as an option in future games.)
  • More direction from Control.
  • Audio system to speak to hall.
  • “Start” earlier, as in ask people to be at the hall for an earlier start so can start on time. (we really needed to be in the hall for set up an hour earlier).
  • Have formalised teams at the start.
  • Additional goals for barbarians, create reason for infighting.
  • Stricter limits on the lengths of turns. There was lots of waiting for lots of people  while a few people did big turns. (The biggest delay tended to be the orient Map with its three factions. I did not spot this in playtesting, being more worried about Usurper and Mutiny disruption on game time).
  • Better time control, maybe a beep telling people time of a specific phase is ending and a big announcement of the start of the next phase.
  • More involved combat and politics. (More involved is usually more time consuming)
  • A big ending – full summary from all regions. (We needed the hall for at least another half or so, I just squeaked out the door after cleaning and packing up was finished).
  • Strict time limits or turns being more led e.g. movement phase starts on the hour and lasts til quarter past.
  • A total beginner’s guide (maybe co-written by a non-gamer). (A good idea – anyone want to volunteer to write it?)
  • More changes in position/appointments for Romans. More communication about significant events when they happen. More things to buy with wealth.
  • Game Feedback: Like the game where it is.  Lots of good interactions and mechanics.  Personally think the Emperors/Rebel Emperors needs a little more power and abilities to do stuff otherwise the Roman Empire is never going to last.  While it was great to win and bring about the downfall of the Empire, it was obvious halfway through the game the Empire was finished.  So what is the point of keeping the Empire propped up?  Why should the Roman players even bother.  Needs to be more incentives or rewards for keeping the Empire alive. (If we had played through rounds 6-10 as designed, you would have likely seen the Roman economy improve, and the Roman force pool would have expanded up to double its starting size, and also introduced many fortification and heavy cavalry units. In hindsight, I should have linked Roman military reforms to the number of military disasters, rather than a random card draw. This could have given regional teams more options and trade-offs to consider in their policy phases.)
  • The players need a list of ideas and possible uses for the Conspiracy Cards.  I didn’t realize you could peek at the combat deck or re-arrange it.  It was only at the end one player pointed out we could use a conspiracy card to move the Palmyran armies during the policy phase.  Just something to help so all players know all their options and can better play the game.  Not feel like they were at the mercy of chaos and with on control over anything. (The problem with me telling players what they can do, is it restricts their imagination to options that are min-max solutions. As Control I want to be surprised and delighted by what players create).
The quaint New Zealand custom of the lunch break is observed. Bottom left: Treasury Table, left side Roman regional faction tables, right side from top to bottom Orient, Danube/Italy, and Gaul maps. Senate and Imperial Household tables were on the stage.

Hybrid Game Feedback

The following feedback is focused on the online part of the game:

  • I would love to see the asymmetry of online vs in person explored more – for example online could be playing with completely different mechanics to IRL people rather than trying to shuffle coins around between online teams and order map movements. Imagine an alien invader game where the alien factions are competing between themselves in a discord-focused game and sending invader units and stuff to Earth, but they don’t actually manage the attacks on earth (eg it just provides the pools for Control players to place on the map and IRL players to react to) (Agree)
  • The biggest thing that would have helped us was more communication with Rome. Not being in person it was extremely difficult to get anyone to talk to, let alone which faction when they split. It would be nice to know that we at least can communicate with Rome, even if it was just control saying hey we want to talk and they could just ignore it. Then we at least know it is on purpose and not because no one is watching the discord irl.
  • Need to clarify how command works and better communication with online control.  I am Roman Dux and the entire time I can’t issue orders to any units due to inability to reach control or I finally get told after several minutes I can’t issue orders to that unit.  Hell I can’t even issue orders to units to stand down and not fight us so what is the point of having this position? (Not knowing exactly what happened, I think I needed to brief Orient Control better on how to handle this situation – which occurred in history. Or have a much clearer mechanic for Roman units switching loyalty to Palmyra)
  • Communication with control was awful on my end.  Background noise and side converstions made it almost impossible at times to hear Orient or Plot Control or worse issue orders for anything.  I would type in orders and nothing would happen.  Then I am getting asked what are my orders later.  But when I try to make sure my other orders have been carried out, Orient Contro disappears and I have no way to reach them.  It literally got to the point where one player had to be the go between because he could communicate with control better and could relay questions and orders between us.  
  • Lots of confusion over who is rebelling and who isn’t.  The Palmyrans attacked two Roman Armies because we were told by Control they mutinied and then heard nothing after asking several times if they were still rebels and moving into other Roman provinces.  Need just a black flag or marker to designate if a group is in open rebellion or not for us online players. (I should have used different colours for Roman regional forces, but big tokens for “REBEL” or “USURPER” would have helped)
  • Updating the discord server for the next channel with more channels for better communication. (There is an upper limit to how many Channels Control can keep a close eye on based on limitations of screen size)
  • Have a dedicated control channel for the different factions. This control text channel should be where moves and official actions are posted and maybe have the different phases be announced and actions can only be done in the phases. This will keep the online players from spamming the chat with actions that can be done whenever.
  • Have a bot channel for each faction and a bot to handle resources. This would require a bit more effort for setting up the bots to move and manage resources. (Although having the confusion about whether or not funds had been sent was also somewhat helpful in the game?) The alternative would be having different roles in the factions that would be in charge of these things. E.g. The diplomat IRL would be the one that could move the money between banks in their faction only and then the players would have to talk to them about it. But still require approval somehow? (This idea likely wouldn’t work unless the faction was completely aligned)
  • Have more voice channels. – One for control to stay in. – One for team to talk together. – Enough extras that pairs of players can also chat together. – Multiple channels that would allow factions to talk to each other (Each faction had a dedicated channel for talking with every other faction, “more channels” is consistent with feedback with other online megagames)
  • Part of the last point is different but having 1 or 2 laptops setup on discord with a headset and mic with the camera on that players on site can use to go up and talk with players online. Just leave them in the channel and the camera on so online players can jump in and chat after coordinating with other players. (Our spare laptop was made available to the Roman Imperial Household. I do not know how keen people are on bringing their own laptops or tablets to megagames, as there is a small risk of damage, loss, or theft).
  • Another camera of the room as a whole would be great just so the online players could see the room (and hear if they want) so they can get more immersion. You could also have it so that announcements will hopefully work through there (good idea, we had another camera, but found we could only get one meeting going with the Zoom account we had)
  • Get players to use their phones and let them know to bring ear buds if you want more interaction between online and IRL players. 
  • The last few points made would require a bit more technological setup and use and obviously with that comes issues if any arise. And of course it would require more assets to be used. I’d be happy to try my hand at being in control and helping out with most of these ideas as they are my own and I do know if I want change then I should be willing to help make it happen. (We love people who volunteer to help Control)
  • Overall it was an amazing game, had tons of fun and I wish I could’ve played in person as well as online. Looking forward to the next game(s).
The elevator pitch for Barracks Emperor was “Its a mash up of Junta and a tower defence game”.

Overall, it was a good game, but needs some tweaks to make it a great game. A lot of lessons were learned about the hybrid format with online players. We definitely need to remedy the timekeeping problem, which will require a mix of equipment, game structures, and setting player expectations about how much time they get for decision-making at the map tables.

After Action Report – WTS: Cold War

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.

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.


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.

The USA-USSR standoff in Cuba was resolved diplomatically.


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 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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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).

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.

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.

The Galaxy Will Burn AAR

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kapcon 2017 AAR – The Colossus of Atlantis

img_0259The Colossus of Atlantis Megagame was a success. We had a few last minute registrations that allowed us to run four map tables, with four five player teams and a wandering hero or two in each round. Close to 30 people involved over the entire game. The feedback on the day felt positive, and secondary feedback from other people on Sunday lined up with everyone having a good time and raving about it to their friends.

With the late registrations we started a little late, and halfway through we changed the 30 minute turns to 40 minute turns. We still got through eight of the planned ten turns and were packed up before the LARP needed the space.

The overall outcome was that Atlantis did not sink, and the Atlantean Generals combined their forces and defeated all four of the enemy empires of Leng, Mu, Argartha and Lemuria. The most fun plot element that I observed was the squabbling and plots over who would get one of the five seats on the Ark if Atlantis did sink.

The map game worked well. There is some room for refinement, but I will award myself a B+ for that part of the game. The council game worked okay, but has definite room for significant improvement, so I will only give myself a C+ there. While I had good rules and help sheets for the map game, its clear the Council games needs more support structure to enable the players to make interesting choices, and for Control to be able to stay on top of what is happening. I also need to make the admin more efficient for Control – they had almost no time for breaks.

Now that I have written the above, I will look at the actual feedback sheets the players filled out. I adapted the Megagame Makers feedback sheet, which can be found here.

Enjoyment – did you have fun?

An average of 4.7 (to one decimal place) on a 1-5 scale where 5 is good and 1 is poor. This is an excellent result, and no one rated the game below a 3.

Briefing – how well did the briefing enable you to play the game?

An average of 3.3. Not a great result, so I went and dug a little deeper into the numbers. Seven people did not read the rules before the game – not an unexpected proportion as we had 4-5 people join at the last minute. The average of the six people who did not read the rules for this question and have it a rating was 2.8. The average among the 15 players who did read the rules was 3.5.

Difficulty – how hard did you find the game to play (1 = easy)?

An average of 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Two people rated the game at 1 (too easy), but no one rated it a 5 (too hard).

Rate of Play – how much pressure (1 = too much 5 = too little)?

Once again a 3, right in the Goldilocks spot. Most people rated it a 3, with five each for 2 and 4, and no one rating it at 1 or 5. we did increase the time for each turn by ten minutes after the lunch break, and there was a bit more pressure on Control than players.

Control – how good a job did they do?

An average of 4.6 is an excellent result. No ratings below 3.

Involvement – how was your involvement with other players?

An average of 4.1. I did not see or hear of any major problems between players and/or control. No one rated this below a 3.

Value – did you get value for money?

4.7. Almost everyone (20 of 23 responses) rated this a 5. At NZ$20 for the weekend convention and no extra fee for the Megagame, its about one-third to one-quarter of the international benchmarks for pricing.

Did you read the rules before playing the game?

15 said YES and six said NO.

Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future?

22 players said yes and one said no. Looking deeper at the no response, they gave Colossus a 3 for fun and a 5 for value for money. Their specific comment on the game was “Explain how invasions work.” As they were a Philosophos, I was relying on their team Strategos to tell them how invasions worked, as that information was in the Strategos briefing.

Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame?

15 people said yes. Which is awesome. Always need more Control players.

How much would you be willing to pay for a Megagame?

I broke this down into two subcategories: day-long and evening length games. For day-long games the range was $15-70, with an average of $32.22. For evening length games the range was $10-50, with an average of $23.83. This is about half the going rate for Megagames in Canada, USA and UK.

This question is of interest to me as hiring a basic conference venue in Wellington starts at around $450 a day. If I have 35 players willing to pay $30 then my budget for running a future Megagame is a little over $1,000. But if I lose about half my players if I charge more than $20 (I had some feedback that the standard LARP charge in NZ is $20), then my budget is only $700. That is enough for one large room in a basic conference venue – which could see a bit of noise pollution in the game. $250 will pay for some printing and game components, but its not going to let you buy premium components or even full colour maps (the last time I got A3 colour printing done a complex map covering a standard gaming table was costing me $150 due to the set up fees for multiple images).

For the immediate future, the safe bet is to attach the game to other conventions, and pass the hat around for donations at the end of the game. I would like to see the community of interested players grow to the point where I can hire my own venue and choose my own dates for running the game. The main disadvantage with Kapcon is that it clashes with Canterbury Faire, the biggest SCA event in New Zealand, and I probably had at least five potential players away at that week long event.


I also asked people to give me feedback on one thing to keep in future games, one thing to stop, and one thing to start doing to make the game better. Original feedback in plain text, my follow up in italics.


More team time for general strategy.

Combat upgrades works well.Council interactions were fun.

Almost all of it.

Timing. Role changing, within reason. Changing roles could break the power balance in councils if a team could have multiple positions in the same game role, and the design intention is that each role is essential to a team, and each role is engaging and fun to play (even if it was not your first choice).

Diplomatic wrangling. More reason to do it. Skulduggery – wandering heroes as empire emissaries (or) incentive cards for treachery. I do intend to add more options for players to choose between altruism and corruption.

Complexity level about right.

Confusion from lack of team communication about NPC enemies, multiple rooms and time pressure.

35 people. At 35 players all the game components fit in one suitcase. The game is designed to be scalable, but once you have more than seven players on a Council they will require more time, or the creation of more Councils.

Simultaneous actions.

Alien armada. I think they meant “enemy empire”.

Having a team to assist victory. Keep being strict on times but maybe expand the length of the rounds a little. Council had some great emergent stuff. Control resetting map was excellent. Yes, Control were tasked with helping players by rubbing all the marks off the players laminated sheets each turn.

Alliances short of joining a house for heroes.

Oversight in each room. Being nice. No swearing.

Empires and monsters. I do wonder if having an ambassador for each of the enemy empires would have been an interesting addition to the game.



Make sure Control on same page.

So many rule changes. One role per region, i.e. not 2 Strategos in one region. Because we had four map tables, not five, each team had a table with two players on it. I left it with the teams, however, as to where they allocated their leaders, and they could change players between map tables if they wanted to (I am not sure any did so).

Additional rules. modify instead of add.

Maybe limit the number of new rules added in a turn.

Need for clearer rules around council meetings.

Team (a) scoring at the end of the game was horrible! By tables? (b) Wonder scoring is BROKEN. VP for BUILDER + VP Contributors (people who supported construction). Some kind of worksheet. Yes, I needed better worksheets for the end of game scoring (the turn by turn sheets for each map table seemed to have worked okay). Wonder scoring was deliberately broken (a feature, not a bug), but at least one team had an Arkitekton who failed to realise they needed to spend money on Wonder construction, so they lost out on the VP race.

Game was too soft/too easy to win? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we just played well. Yes, you played well.

Rampant player collusion. Although … 5 x str 89 smash 18 monsters … [comment from a Control player].

Time pressure.

Rule change.

Rule changing.

Overspending on wonders.

Dividing the last minute players onto one team was a bit tricky ~one experienced player would have helped. Its hard to find an experienced player when its the first public run of the game – and the one player who had been given a run through the game was promoted to Control when the extras turned up. The problem with rejigging the teams was that many players had already been plotting for a couple of days, and I was loathe to break up their team.

Missing some info that could be on cards i.e. voting cards not clear (I think) that turn values add to VOTE total (and if 1 person [knows?] can get out of hand).

Wonder building as dominant VP. Wonders were intended as a money sink, but I will admit to being surprised at just how altruistic all the players were about giving nearly all their cash to their Arkitekton.


General meetings between rounds for announcements. I had originally wanted to do this, but on the day I was just too busy. With another Control person to help with admin this would be possible.

Show magikos Orichalcum is sum of compared to the number allocated to Hop/Tri/Col. This calculation was too complex/not clear enough on the reference sheet. I will be changing it.

More time to plan unit deployment. I’m not convinced more time is needed for this.

Maybe add extra time to say what rules are changed each round. If a create a lot of the optional changes before the game starts, then I can have prewritten material to be distributed to update people on changes. Another option is to restrict each Council to one rule change per turn.

Permanent Control over card trading. One way of doing this will be to place the cards by the table where the Council meeting for the players allowed to purchase those cards is.

Come to Canberrra! I’m happy to travel and run the game as long as my travel, accommodation and incidental costs are met. I will also work on a licensed version of the game that anyone can download and run for a small fee.

More motivation for skulduggery, [therefore] rules need to be in there. I think the best place for more skulduggery is in the Council meetings, as the map game is already very busy. It is a goal of my design that Colossus  includes some “prisoner’s dilemma” choices and personal goals that can undermine team goals.

More visible timers. Yes, one of the Control team working on an app for more synchronised timekeeping.

A briefing sheet for wandering heroes similar to other roles, but focused on hero. My bad, these did exist, but I failed to put one in your hands when you turned up halfway through the game.


Keep better control of time. And also involve less luck in the win. Time pressure is something Control can always be improving. I don’t think the final win relied much on luck. The wining team had scored well consistently throughout the game.

Refining the voting rules. I think if each Council is given its own rule book with a clear process and flowchart of actions, then a lot of the problems with voting will go away. The player vote cards can definitely be improved with better instructions on the one use vote cards and a clearer display of how many votes each player has.

Online video with rules. I would like to do this, but I would need to get/borrow a decent video camera first.

A DOOM track. Yes, good idea. Need a visual reference for all players/control of what current Atlantis DOOM is. This would also be something that could be tweeted.

More focus on how the council works/voting works – having a GM be able to say do A B C.

Trying to dominate one council completely. I’m pretty sure players were trying to do this, with reasonable success in the game. Allowing a player to permanently dominate a council, makes that part of the game play broken for everyone else.

What next?

I will think about the feedback for a bit longer, and then pen a second post on some possible changes to the rules later this week. I am still committed to running this game at GENCON this year. In the mean time I am keen to hear further comments and suggestions from the players and Control who helped make it all work on the day!