Den of Wolves

February 24, 2019

On Saturday 23 February 2019, the Wellington Megagame Collective ran John Mizon’s Den of Wolves Megagame at the Wellington Bridge Club.

There was an impressive turnout for the game, with 44 people taking part as players, Control or Kitchen support. That made it the largest Megagame run in Wellington, even though half-a-dozen of the “usual suspects” were unable to make it due to other commitments. We had players come down from Auckland and Palmerston North, one backpacker from California, another backpacker from Sweden, and four players who flew over from Sydney in Australia. We ran with a control team of six (myself as Mega Control, two Fleet Control, and one each for Council Control, Time Control and Cat Control). In terms of player positions we were missing a first officer for one of the ships, had a media team of two, and unfortunately had a late cancellation from a player in Christchurch due to a real life event. This meant the Star Alpha was missing its First Secretary.

As Mega Control my early game intent was to attack the Survivor Fleet until they jumped, and to then pace the emotional tension of the game so that there was an upbeat every now and then rather than a constant stream of downbeats. I kept a close eye on overall damage to the Fleet, making sure that there were turns without any attacks so that there was a chance for repairs and recovery. I also made some Wolf attacks under powered, so that the Fleet got a couple of morale boosting victories.

Early Game

The lack of a First Secretary made the Star Alpha vulnerable to damage as the ship’s with a full crew were able to focus engineers, materials and repair actions on their ships. This led to a decision early in the game to strip the Star Alpha of useful materials, and to wire it to ram into a Wolf ship (which it did in the next battle, taking out a Maugrim class Destroyer). I adjudicated the loss of the Star Alpha as being worth -1 to Fleet Morale, and with the President, Vice President and Star Alpha crew relocated to the Dione, I increased Food and Water requirements for the Dione by +2 and an ongoing -1 to morale checks due to “incessant whining”.

Mid Game

The mid game was one of slowly escalating damage across the Survivor Fleet, from a combination of Wolf attacks, emergency jump damage, and Wolf sabotage. As the Wolf agents activated their emitter beacons the pursuit track started increasing by +3 per turn!

The Aegis used a SIGINT hint generated by the Endeavour to find out that a future attack would be led by Aethelwulf class Cruisers, and then made use of its cyber capability to narrow down which quadrant of the Fleet map the encrypted Wolf signals (“Big Bad Wolf, this is Lost Sheep, this is Lost Sheep…”) were coming from. They were both coming from the Dione! At this point the crew of the Dione noticed there were two face down special action cards on their table. They had been been planted there by Wolf agents earlier (one hidden under a sign, the other under the Dione’s ship’s cat card). After a little hesitation they flipped them over (not bombs, hooray!) and handed them over to the Aegis, where the Comms officer managed to hack them to send a false signal.

This saved the Fleet from another attack, as the pursuit track had hit 11 and at 12 I was going to bring the Big Bad Wolf out. A succession of jumps then got the pursuit track down to a low level, at the cost of significant damage to several ships. I created a set of emergency jump damage cards for this gae. The “Fire!” card was based on my personal experience in damage control school for the naval reserve – a fire on board a ship is terrifying.

Another resource the Wolf agents had were two one-use Stealth shuttle attacks. These deployed a single special forces unit, equivalent in capability to an Aegis Marine unit. The first of these struck the Dione in an attempt to complete the Wolf special mission to kill the Chief Engineer. This was when the Engineer revealed his Paranoia and Marine Training special action cards, eliminating the SOF unit, and giving the Dione enough weapons and armour to upgrade a security unit to marine quality. The second stealth attack struck the Icebreaker, damaging two stations before being eliminated. This was almost enough damage to lead to the Icebreaker being abandoned

The Chief Engineer on the Dione was acclaimed a hero, awarded a medal, and the Dione stripped its old shuttle for parts (+4 materials) and now had a Stealth Shuttle. Then a Wolf agent – the Ace Reporter – made a personal attack on the Chief Engineer and this assassination was successful, with the Wolf agent then doing a last stand with a knife, wounding several of the Dione’s security unit (the Wolf agents were rated as “007 quality).

This was a high damage game. The Fleet struggled to grow its pool of fighters and pilots and completely exhausted the supply of Engineer counters. As we headed into the End Game, the decision to get materials for repairs rather than strytium ore for jump fuel was going to constrain the Survivor Fleet’s options.

The End Game

Turns 10-11 the Fleet was focused on repairing the critical damage to ships, especially the Icebreaker, which took more damage than any other ship during the game. It was a time when everyone pooled resources for survival. It was noticeable to me that the fuel tanks were dry across the Fleet, except on the smallest ships. The Aegis and the Endeavour worked together (and spent 11 research points) to find a jump destination far away enough to be beyond Wolf attacks. Without fuel it was going to require an emergency jump, so many ships across the Fleet spent Water tokens to cool the jump drives off to make it safe to do yet another emergency jump.

One of the remaining Wolf agents chose this opportunity to wreak havoc on Refinery 124. First an “industrial accident” hit the Captain, the only other player present at the ship at that moment. Then the agent damaged a station, wounded the remaining Security unit, and damaged another station. At this point two Aegis Marine units arrived, and the agent managed to wound them to. So there was a final showdown between the agent and Chief Engineer (who had returned to the ship) and the dice went the Chief Engineer’s way.

This was when I dropped the Wolf Alpha class battleship and the Big Bad Wolf class Carrier (which launches eight Wolf Fighter Squadrons at the end of every Wolf combat round). Here is when the resources spent on repairing and fueling the spinal mount gun on the Aegis paid off. The spinal mount does a satisfying d6 worth of “hits” in one roll. The Survivor Fleet was able to destroy both ships and jump towards a happy ending. If the pursuit track had been higher, I would have given the two ships more escort fighters. The Vulcan only just avoided being lost in space in the emergency jump. Things got a bit grim on the Icebreaker which jumped late due to heat issues. they had a famous last stand between their last Fighter unit and three Wolf squadrons. Having no food or water left they had an outbreak of cannibalism on the long voyage to safety (roll a d6 to see how many units die, they rolled a six, but saved one unit by eating an alleged “Wolf Traitor”).

The last Wolf Agent, the Captain of the Shepherd, decided to abandon the Wolf Cause, as the crew of the Shepherd were now his real family.

The Wolf Pack

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea, When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib”

The code words to initiate Wolf contact were “null” and “void”, with the response phrase including either “purple” or “gold”. The code word for the stealth shuttle was “Nineveh”.

As part of casting I asked players if they wanted a simple, complex or byzantine role and if they wanted to be loyal, ambitious, or treacherous. The Wolf agents were selected at random from among the eight odd players who volunteered for treachery. The complexity scale determined how many bonus special action, open resources (what can you do with a Rosetta Stone or the last box of Twinkies?) and personal goals the player got in their sealed envelope.

Because Den of Wolves has been run several times and AARs are easily found online, I did not attempt to conceal the presence of Wolf agents from the players. I did, however, muddy the waters a little. In addition to the three Wolf Agents there were four Fleet characters who were migrants from Wolf loyal to the IC and a player suffering from “Stockwolf Syndrome” who believed they were a Wolf agent, but was really just delusional. There were a number of stolen IC databases around that could be interrogated for clues about recent ship movements (What was the President doing on Wolf three months ago?). At the start of the game I made it clear that Control would never confirm/deny if a player was a Wolf agent – that judgement was entirely in the player’s hands.

Two characters had social special actions that could find Wolves. One of the media team (not the traitor) could ask someone if they were born on Wolf (accent and shibboleth analysis) if they spent a minute talking with them. This would identify both the agents and the loyal citizens, but not the Stockwolf victim. The Warden of the Vulcan could interrogate people on his ship – successful if they could get the subject to smile or laugh in a minute, getting one truthful answer to a question. This could produce a false positive on the Stockwolf victim.

The journalist asked 12 people, but never found a single one of the seven players with “Wolf accents”. It is the nature of sowing seeds for emergent play that sometimes an idea does not flower, and in other cases it takes on a life of its own.

Mistakes Made

I did mishandle the morale rules early on – not sufficiently clear on whether it was a 1d6, 2d6 or 3d6 roll. There was one incident that is making me think about whether I need an explicit X-card in future megagames. I did not pay enough attention to the Council and I screwed up the elections at the end of the game. In hindsight, I should have left that one for Council Control to resolve. I was also too hands on with Fleet combat, wanting to see how the “new toys” I had devised worked in actual play. I should have left Fleet Control to do more of that task.

Setting the Late Wolf ticket price increase in the middle of two major events a month beforehand was a mistake. I should keep the late ticket price to a week or so prior.

Feedback on the game

  1. Enjoyment: did you have fun? (4.6)
  2. Briefing: how well did the briefing enable you to play the game? (4)
  3. Difficulty: how hard did you find the game to play? (3.6)
  4. Rate of Play: how much time pressure? (3.1)
  5. Control: how good a job did they do? (4.7)
  6. Involvement: how was your involvement with other players? (4.2)
  7. Value: did you get value for money? (4.6)
  8. Ticketing: how easy was the lilregie website to use? (4.2)

While this is overall a great result, one player had a game that sucked for them. That feedback has given me a lot to think about for future games. The President and Admiral also seemed to have scores a notch below average. This may reflect the difficulty inherent in such an apex role, or perhaps the need for another support role to help coordinate matters.

  1. Did you read the rules before playing the game? 83% of the players read the rules before the game, with the remaining players reading part of the rules.
  2. Would you be interested in playing Megagames in the future? 89% of the players would be interested in future Megagames, another 8% were “maybe”.
  3. Would you be interested in being CONTROL in a future Megagame? Four people said “yes”. I will be emailing out an invite to people to join the Wellington Megagame Collectives closed Facebook group.
  4. Did you find the Discord channel useful before the game? 55% of the players found Discord useful. By the start of the Megagame we had almost everyone on Discord.
  5. Did you find the Discord channel useful during the game? 58% of the players found Discord useful. A common request in feedback was for a second projector screen to display a feed from Discord.

Marketing and Communication

The three main sources where people first heard about Den of Wolves were Facebook (13), friends (7) and email (6). All other sources were in the one or two range.

The best sources for information that led people to sign up for Den of Wolves were Facebook (19), friends (14) and email (13).

No major surprises here. Our email list of interested players is valuable, but social media sharing and friendship is important. Store posters, while they may only attract one or two people, do have the advantage of bringing in people who are not part of local networks.

Finances

This is the first time I have independently booked a venue. A month before the event we had sold 21 tickets in three months. In the last month we sold another 21 tickets. We are not in a position where we can confidently assume a Megagame will sell out, so selling over 40 tickets was a great achievement. It was a little shot of endorphins each time I got an email from the ticketing website that another ticket had been sold. Ticket prices of waged $30 and unwaged $15 were also a gamble, but advice from friends was that it was comparable to LARP prices and fair for what was involved.

We asked players how much they would be willing to pay for a daylong Megagame, and the average was $34. This is roughly double the answer from previous surveys. Perhaps this is because this game reset expectations, with a waged ticket of $30, compared to the $10-15 of past games.

Major expenses (rounded to nearest $5):

  1. Game license $415
  2. Venue Hire $320
  3. Printing $365
  4. Stationary $70
  5. TOTAL: $1170

Income from tickets is roughly $1095. Around $60 in fees will be deducted and I will be emailing a few people who paid the late Wolf ticket price to offer a $5 refund. All up I came very close to the goal of breaking even – if we had sold the remaining four tickets it would have been just $7 under the costs.

The venue was a good one, with a PA system, projector, 20 car parks and Wifi included in the affordable hire cost. We had access to two major rooms, each of which could seat 100 people, and a connecting area by the Kitchen. I hope we can use it again in the future.

What did not work, however, was the attempt to offer a canteen with a range of food and drink items. I am several hundred dollars in the red on that gamble, although a lot of the items can be kept in storage for a while or given away to friends. The free tea and coffee was appreciated. In future I think I would keep the offering to the free drinks and some kind of honesty box for a sugar hit treat like chocolate bars. Although I specified it would be cash only, many people now do not routinely carry cash and I am not sure I can afford a machine reader. At a coffee cart this morning, the manager told us that his BNZ mobile card reader cost $30 a month.

Thanks

Thank you to everyone who came along and played the game, shared the event with friends, or helped control it. A special thank you to my beloved, Catherine, for help with transportation and the kitchen. Thanks also to our supporters at Counter Culture, Cerebus Games and The Caffeinated Dragon for helping with promotion. Thanks also to John Mizon for designing an amazing game! Now after four months of worrying about Den of Wolves, its time to turn my attention back to Colossus of Atlantis, which will be running at Wellycon on 1 June.


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.

WTS-CW-2-solids-names-cities

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).

2017-08-19 19.23.38

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.

screenshot-2018-05-09-12-04-20.png

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.

Screenshot 2018-05-09 12.11.08

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.


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.


Bookings for Kapcon are now open!

November 6, 2017

This means bookings for The Galaxy Will Burn Megagame are also open! It is your opportunity to struggle against other factions within an Galactic Empire as things fall apart and independent pirates and warlords threaten the old order. Or perhaps you will belong to a revolutionary faction that wants to overthrow the Empire?

I will be doing a couple of things differently with TGWB. The different factions in the game will be of different sizes, and players may belong to more than one faction. In past megagames I have had to do severe contortions with last minute player registrations and faction membership to try and keep things balanced. For TGWB I cannot do this, as membership of some of the factions are secret. I think its going to work out like this:

  • Players who turn up and register on Saturday 21 January for the megagame will be placed in the default faction, the Galactic Loyalists, and as their faction name suggests, their goal is to preserve the Galactic Empire as it is
  • Players who register by Monday 15 January will get the full casting sheet, and will be able to join both a public faction and a secret faction (you must be in a public faction, belonging to a secret faction is optional)
  • People who contact me between the 15th and 21st may be able to get a faction choice, but probably will not be in a secret faction
  • The first 13 people to register will be allowed to join more than one secret faction.

I will be aiming to complete the initial casting as soon as possible after 15 January, so members of the same faction have some opportunity to plot together before the game starts on Saturday.

There are four main player roles at the start of the game:

  • Governor – responsible for controlling sectors of space on one of the Quadrant maps. This is a good role if you like playing a game of slowly expanding your territory and resources.
  • Admiral – responsible for patrolling the hyperlanes on one of the Quadrant maps. This is a good role if you like being aggressive in combat.
  • Politician – leading a faction, politicians are based in the Imperial Capital, with a gameplay focus on trying to successfully resolve crises and make sure you become the next Emperor rather than the other politicians. This is probably the most difficult of the game roles.
  • Media – responsible for conveying accurate, timely information between the different sections of the game, that the historical record exalts the achievements of their faction, and for making sure that blame is attached to people who mishandle crises. This is the role that has the most emphasis on roleplaying, and the least on boardgame style mechanics. As such it is a good role for a player who is new to Megagames.

Players will be able to change their factions and roles during the course of the game. You want for example become a leader of the initially non-player Pirate or Warlord factions, or become an Usurper trying to overthrow the current government of the Empire.

TGWB can cope with 40 players. I am looking for six to eight people to help Control the game.

KapCon 2018 is open for registration. If you’d like to attend, please
fill out the form here:

http://kapcon.org.nz/?q=regform

Early-round games can be viewed here: http://kapcon.org.nz/?q=games27

And the flagship larp signup form is here:
https://goo.gl/forms/8QMN2hEHAajdOg6x2

As usual, we’ll be doing this “shark week” style, with games allocated
on preferences after a week. So there’s no need to rush the form in a
giant gaming frenzy.

We’re still after games, so if you’d like to run something, please
fill out the form here: http://kapcon.org.nz/?q=gamereg

The structure of KapCon means that on average everyone needs to run a
game, so please do your bit.

If you’ve forgotten your username or are having trouble logging in,
please email kapcon@gmail.com.

Malcolm Harbrow
Official KapCon mail prole

The cost of coming to Kapcon for the weekend is $30 (or $20 if you are helping facilitate a game), for just the Saturday the fee is $20. There is a $5 discount for preregistering by 15 January.

I will be trying to update my website with more information about the game later this week, but at the moment I am getting some errors trying to load the site builder, and the default help suggestion of clearing the cookie cache is not working.


Mapping the Galaxy

September 29, 2017

The design problem I have been wrestling with this week, is just how much stuff to include in the map game, and how much detail will be required on the game map.

I am still thinking about whether the map game takes place at the same time as the other potential mini-games (imperial politics, trade, technology, and possibly intelligence), or whether the mini-games follow the map game, with the players having the freedom to choose which mini-game they want to engage in.

The latter option requires more time for a full round of player actions and decisions, but probably does not put as much stress on the players. This is because you can pause between the major game phase transitions and give the players time to distribute information. It also gives Control time to tidy up the game while the players are busy elsewhere.

The former option puts more stress on the players (who have to make time during the game to share information with their faction members, and to do diplomacy with other factions), but allows each player role to be more specialised (and in theory means each player has to master a shorter set of rules). This is I think closer to the way that most other Megagames have been run in the past.

In terms of map design, if only a subset of the players are playing full-time at the maps, then they can afford to be a little smaller in physical size, but could also be a bit more rich in information. I’ll come back to this idea towards the end of this post. There is a third option as well, which is to run the map game full-time, but to only occasionally run the mini-games, rather than having the mini-games occur every turn.

I am not sure if there is a right answer here.

Map Progress

First, I have spent some time getting to grips with Profantasy’s Cosmographer expansion for their Campaign Cartographer mapping software. One of the things I did was to grab their example of a galactic map, and strip off its political borders and labels.

Galaxy Map Sans Lines

While this looks nice, the physical nature of the map tables means that building a game map for 40 odd players off something like this is hard. A big circle is simply too difficult for players to reach across. Plus the most recent thoughts on what the Milky Way looks like are a bit more complicated. The presence of a big black hole in the centre of the galaxy (Sagittarius A) means that its a bit implausible as a location for an Imperial capital.

sig05-010_Ti

The Milky Way Galaxy Map website, as the name suggests, has been able to provide me with a lot of information about the observable portion of the Milky Way galaxy. On the whole it supports the four spiral arm take on the Galaxy, but also provides a bit more discussion in talking about the spurs off the main arms and some bridges that connect them. So this atomic hydrogen model map was very helpful in taking my ideas to the next level. The far side of the galaxy probably has a similar level of interesting detail, but we simply can’t observe it accurately through the plane of the galaxy.

model_illustration_large

So what I have done here is outline five sections of the map to focus on. Each of the red rectangles will be developed into its own map. So unlike The Colossus of Atlantis, each table will have a different geography and character. To simplify gameplay, the off-map parts of the galaxy will be sparsely populated backwaters that play no major part in the game.

Galaxy Map Realistic

The most common term for mapping large sections of the galaxy is quadrant (typically either centered on Earth, or the centre of the Galaxy). The English language is sufficiently flexible to allow more than four quadrants (the word has the same sense as a city quarter). For a smaller region of space, I think “sector” is the term most often used in fiction. So the levels of gameplay are:

  1. Galaxy
  2. Quadrant
  3. Sectors and Hyperlanes
  4. System

Map Complexity

First, lets repeat this image from a previous post, covering what the sector/hyperlane/system part of a quadrant map might look like. I think in future versions I will try using some of the sheet effects in Cosmographer to make the sectors more circular in shape.

Map Example

So what a player could see on the game map is:

  1. Name labels for the different areas on the map
  2. Borders between different areas on the map
  3. An indication of the value of the area (for gaining resources for use in trade and other mini-games)
  4. Sector Bases
  5. Fleet units controlled by one or more players
  6. Imperial fleet units loyal to the Galactic Empire
  7. Megaships (with a 50mm base, they take up a chunk of real estate)
  8. An indication of who controls the region
  9. How loyal an area is to the Galactic Empire (I am thinking of using heart shaped tokens for this)
  10. How integrated the area is with the Galactic Empire (direct rule, local rule, or collapse).
  11. Stress markers (for determining where crises occur)
  12. Indications of important changes in the game state (tokens, cards, marker pen on laminated sheets, etc)

Which is getting to be a bit much I think. Especially if you have to scan 20 odd areas on the game map. Its a lot of rich, complex information, which makes the game fun to play if you have a fair degree of system mastery, but could be overwhelming in a one-off megagame. The COIN system that influenced my design thoughts is optimised for around four players, rather than forty players. I am just a bit worried that its one token too many, and my design goal is that I want players to be able to resolve three rounds of action at the map table every 20 minutes (a lot like Aquila Rift).

Here is what I think I can do to keep most of what I want in the game system, while making it easier for the players:

  • Only allow one faction base per sector – so control determination becomes “Who controls the base in the area?”.
  • Allow the non-player faction Pirate/Warlord Bases to be placed in sectors – thus keeping a feeling of “Space is really big”.
  • Colour code the sector borders so that each Governor’s initial areas of control are clearly marked (and I can match the colour to the faction colour of the player). Things will change in play, but I think players can stay on top of that.
  • Tying the condition of integration with the Galactic Empire to the player rather than the map (which also fits well with how I intend player resource budgets work).
  • Making the value of a controlled sector or system be one, and the value of a controlled section of hyperlane be two. Because the values are fixed, I may not need them printed on the map, but I might need a “Burn” token if the area is destroyed in economic terms.
  • I will see how loyalty markers work in playtesting (as some factions will be working to preserve the empire, or to secede from it, I want to keep this in).

So, if you have read this far, what would be the first thing you would cut to make the game simpler?

 

 


The Galaxy Will Burn

September 17, 2017

This weekend I have been working through my initial ideas for The Galaxy Will Burn. I have made some good progress, but I do have a question for readers about a key element of the gameplay.

The core theme for the game is that the galactic empire will probably collapse, in contrast to The Colossus of Atlantis, where the players can generally work together to avoid the deluge. So in TGWB, a key decision for each player and/or faction, is at what point do they stop working to support the imperial system, and instead start working to subvert the system and establish a successor state.

As an aside, I spent some time looking at a forthcoming release from GMT games, Pendragon, which reminds me a lot of the old Britannia game, but using Volko Ruhn’s COIN system and focusing mainly on the 5th century. While it had some great interplay between the four positions and a neat way of modelling the decline of Roman influence in Britain, I cannot just adapt it wholesale into a Megagame. Too much of the game relies on it only being a four player experience, and I want to provide a good experience for 40 players.

Player Roles

Everyone starts as a sector Governor for the Galactic Empire. Each player has a public faction, which everyone knows about, and a secret faction (which only other members of the faction know about). I might also have some players as Admirals, responsible for patrolling the hyperlanes, and perhaps some industrialists who are focused on controlling key worlds that make unique resources and advanced technologies.

I will be looking to have a media team in the game if we get enough players, or possible a media rep on each team. They will not have a map based role (which also makes them good for diplomacy and espionage). They will have the ability to trigger crises by reporting on stress and corruption in the game system, as well as having a lot of influence to shape the overall game narrative.

I want to give players some freedom to choose which of the optional minigames they will focus on. If you want to be a pirate, you will be able to spend a good part of the game as a pirate.

Player Objectives

In moment to moment game play, a player will be trying to gain resources from the map game that can be used in the other minigames (trade, technology, and imperial politics).

One way of doing well in the game is for all members of a faction to gain control of the key positions in the Imperial Government. This should be difficult to achieve, and is worth a round of applause and a good boost in the game itself.

There will be opportunities for players to become a Strong Emperor during the game. When this happens, you get 60 seconds of time in which to give orders to Control to carry out (e.g. “Remove House Balu influence pawns from the Imperial Treasury” or “Remove Pirate ships from Orion’s arm”). One of the perks of this job is influencing the end of game victory objectives, by choosing what will be scored at the end of the game.

As the end game approaches, players will have to choose between loyalty to the remnant Empire, or trying to create the most powerful successor state out of the power vacuum created by the collapse of the empire.

The Map Game

Depending on the number of players, I plan to have five map tables. One for each of the Spiral Arms, and one for the centre of the Galaxy. Each map consists of approximately five “areas” per player assigned to the map. An area can be one of the following three:

  • a sector (thousands of star systems)
  • a key world
  • a hyperlane.

Map Example

This style of map is common in the GMT COIN games. The fast movement/line of communication route (the Hyperlane) is also a sector boundary. Placing Bases on the Hyperlane, and keeping it clear of Pirates lets you collect its trade value and move quickly from one side of the map to the other. Just one sector is shown in full here. All sectors will have space for two bases, but the sector value will vary from one to three. The key world only has room for one base and an economic value of one, but each key world will have some kind of in-game bonus from controlling it (such as building an extra Ship token each turn). Normal movement off the hyperlanes is just from sector to adjacent sector.

The Turn Sequence

  1. Budget Phase
  2. Planning Phase
  3. Resolve First Actions
  4. Resolve Second Actions
  5. Resolve Third Actions
  6. Glory Phase

Budget Phase

As Imperial officials, players have a fixed budget of six atomic power tokens per game turn. A player can choose to appropriate more atomic power to boost the effectiveness of their actions, but this has risks. If you do this draw a playing card:

  • if the card value is equal to your current budget, double your budget for this game turn
  • if your draw a Joker, increase your budget permanently by +1 (to a maximum of six). If you are already at six, gain one Megapower token!
  • if the card value is less than your current budget, gain that many atomic power tokens AND your normal budget allocation
  • if the card value is greater than your current budget, gain that many atomic power tokens
  • if the card is a royal card, treat it as having a value of 10.

It will pretty much always be worth pushing to increase your budget. If you don’t, you get immunity from some central government actions (no prosecutions for corruption), but you will fall behind the other players.

The suit on the card also has an effect:

  • Rag Hearts: place a stress token in one area on the map.
  • Royal Hearts: place one stress token in two areas on the map (stress markers are used by Control to help determine where crisis events will strike).
  • Rag Diamonds: reduce your budget permanently by one.
  • Royal Diamonds: reduce your budget permanently by two.
  • Rag Clubs: Spawn Warlord tokens equal to card value in one area (Warlords stay where they are placed).
  • Royal Clubs: Spawn ten Warlord tokens and a base in one area (the base means these Warlord tokens will get stronger over time)
  • Rag Spades: Spawn Pirate tokens equal to card value over three areas (not more than half in one area). Unlike Warlords, Pirates will move towards plunder.
  • Royal Spades: Spawn ten Pirate tokens over three areas (not more than half in one area) and place a Pirate Base in the area with the most pirate tokens.
  • Joker: shift one set of stress tokens out of an area you control, and place them in another area of your choice.

If the area you govern transitions from central rule to local rule, your budget is reset to six atomic power. If Imperial government collapses entirely in your region, your budget is reset back to six again.

Atomic Power not used in a game turn is lost. The only way to save power from turn to turn is to purchase Megapower tokens (which costs four atomic power at the start of the game). You can trade atomic power tokens with other players at your map table, but only Megapower tokens can be taken between tables.

Planning Phase

Below is a first draft of what a player’s planning mat might look like. I will add other information displays later (like a budget track).

Sketch

You always get two actions, and can choose to do a third power action – which is to either buy a Megapower token, or to spend a Megapower token to do a third action of your choice.

If you are doing a “secret” action you get to put the action card face down on the mat during planning. Obviously this makes it harder for other players to second guess what you are doing. Secret actions also allow you to do things like build units loyal to your faction, rather than loyal to the empire.

Part of your planning is to choose and place a card. Then you also choose (for the first two actions), how much atomic power you are allocating to it. For secret actions, put the tokens underneath the action card (confusion to your enemies). The token below can be found on the Gamecrafter website (alternately, I will get a lot of yellow tokens, some spray paint, and make a stencil), and its what I might be using in this Megagame. For Megapower tokens, I am looking into getting some clay poker chips made up (because they feel really nice).

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Resolving Actions

I am still fleshing out the menu of actions. Every player will have access to a core set of standard actions, including:

  • Build base
  • Build ships
  • Move ships
  • Patrol (finds enemy ships)
  • Initiate battle

The rationale in making movement, patrolling, and battle different actions, is that this rewards players who cooperate with each other. The more atomic power you commit to an action, the more you get to do with it.

Special actions will also exist. These require privilege cards from other minigames, and may require a Megapower token to play.

Resolution of builds, moves, and patrols is simultaneous and there will be a timer going. Battles are resolved after all other actions are completed.

I am still working on the combat system, but leaning towards the chance element being the draw of a card rather than rolling a bucket of dice. There are two kinds of combat units: ships, and Megaships. I will use the Pirate miniatures from Hydra Miniatures for Megaships. Actions with Megaships require both a privilege card and a Megapower token. Megaships automatically defeat and eliminate all opposing ships (the best they can do is to damage the Megaship).

Space Pirate class 4 catalog-flat

Ordinary ships will possible look like this:

rocket

Most of the other game tokens are likely to be wooden cubes or discs, but I may get some MDF “movement trays” to help figure out who controls which tokens (remember, at the start of the game, every unit on the map is an imperial token), and to move them quickly in play.

Glory Phase

The Glory Phase will happen about once every 20 minutes (during which time a map table should get through the other phases about three times).

Players at a table compare relative “glory” scores for elimination of pirates and warlords, and control of areas. The highest scoring player(s) get privilege cards allowing them to play a round of the imperial capital, trade, and technology minigames. These minigames can generate crises, but can also reward players with privilege cards that let them do special actions in the main map game.

If I have governor and admiral player roles, admirals will focus on pirate hunting, while governors will want to eliminate warlords.

The imperial capital game will involve a maze of government agencies and is a game of trying to control as much of the government as possible, while shifting blame tokens to the government agencies controlled by other players/factions. Some possible outcomes from the imperial capital game include:

  • granting command of a megaship to a player
  • reassigning a player from one game map to another game map
  • decentralising the power to grant privilege cards from the imperial capital to a player at a map table (or centralising such devolved powers back to the capital)
  • recognising local rule for some sectors on a game map
  • precedence – allowing you to move/fight with units controlled by another player.

There will always be a crisis somewhere in the game. Solving one just spawns a new one. Ignore a crisis for too long, and it will have a negative effect on the empire.

The trade minigame will involve trading cards (more like Civilisation than Settlers of Cattan), but the bubble market will be represented by a Jenga tower. Each time a trade is done, both the players must draw a tile from the Jenga tower. The higher the tower, the greater the bonus reward for trading. If the Jenga tower falls, there is a major financial crisis and trading stops, not to resume until after the imperial government intervenes.

The technology minigame will produce one use advantage cards, but the disruption of new technology can create crises. I still have a lot of design work to do here.

Question: what would be an appropriate in game penalty for anyone who deliberately knocks the Jenga tower over?

Players who do not get privileged access can either spend a round focusing on diplomacy, or they can go to any map table and play a round with the pirates or warlords there.

Here is my key question: does it actually sound like a fun thing to do, to go and play pirates/warlords for a bit, while most of the other players are engaged in a different minigame?