Barracks Emperor AAR

October 30, 2021

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.