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.