In my very first post, I briefly presented myself and the Switching the Current project and stated the aim of this blog on megagame design: it’s part open research journal, part invitation to contribute with thoughts and ideas to the game design process. In this post, I’ll go into the choices made and dilemmas faced at the very beginning of the design process, i.e. where to start.
I’ll begin by admitting one of my flaws as a game designer (and elsewhere): when I do something new, I have a tendency to invent the wheel – even when I’m well aware there’s plenty of experience to draw upon. When researching what later became the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), I listened to Episode 2 of the Last Turn Madness: a podcast about Megagames in which Jim Wallman discussed megagames. Had I been anyone but myself, I would have immediately googled and found Wallman’s four-post guide to ‘Megagame Design The Easy Way’ that he wrote just six months before I began to wrestle with the megagame format in earnest. Being who I am, I instead opted to start from scratch having studied Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos and attended a playtest session of Event Horizon by megagame designer Johan Olofsson of Gothenburg Megagames. This choice took me and my fellow game designers on a long and winding journey that began with a highly detailed board game (a genre which I’m more familiar with and which grew impossibly complex already at 20 players in September 2019, via three playtests of increasingly less complex versions in late 2019 and early 2020, to a complete overhaul in the summer of 2020 and ultimately to the relatively playable (but far from perfect) online version of the CCM that was played by 45 players (roughly half of what it was designed for) in November 2020.
The lesson I learned during this journey is explained in a few lines by Wallman in his guide: start with an existing (board or computer) game and develop it into a megagame. Before worrying about copyright infringements, rest assured that the resulting megagame won’t look anything like the original – by the time it’s been scaled up to host dozens or even hundreds of players, it’s certain to be quite unrecognisable even to the designers of the original game. Wallman provides three excellent examples of this process and in my future posts I will explain how I’ve utilised his advice – here, I’ll simply note that I’ve learned my lesson: it is far, far easier to start out the process of designing a megagame with an existing game (or any other kind of structure, e.g. a computer model or an organisational chart) as a scaffold.
For the current design process, this meant that the very first choice to be made was not whether or not to use a scaffold, but which game or other structure to use as a scaffold. I decided on presenting my research team with three potential approaches that I will develop side by side in the months to come – my idea was that additional approaches would have required too much effort from both me and my team and fewer would have limited the scope of the design process already at the outset. I will continually evaluate each approach to determine if it’s interesting in terms of achieving the goals of our research project, and eventually arrive at a single design approach by elimination and merging of approaches.
The three approaches that I currently pursue are:
- Adapting the Power Grid board game by Friedemann Friese
- Redesigning the CCM to place its focus on the transition of the energy system
- Creating a megagame based on a model of the Swedish energy system that is currently being constructed by members of my team, primarily Associate Professor Lena Buffoni at the Department of Computer and Information Science at Linköping University
The first approach has the advantage of being a well-known game about a national energy system, albeit focusing exclusively on electricity and not going into details regarding who the energy consumers are and what they want. In this choice I was inspired by Wallman’s development of the Sengoku megagame that was based on the classic board game Shogun by Dirk Henn. After I’ve populated the megagame version with 50-100 players it’s very likely that there’s much of the original game left – however, I consider it an interesting starting point as the original game design will suggest both which player groups are essential (producers, suppliers and consumers of energy) and which aspects of reality have been removed in order to make the board game playable (civic society, land use, politics).
The second approach has the advantage of already being a megagame for 80+ players and having been built to simulate a geographic area (the county of Östergötland in southeast Sweden). The drawback with this approach is that, due to the complex nature of the energy system, it was intentionally simplified during the design process so as not to steal the attention of the players from other parts of the game. Thus, the transition of the energy system that we wish to focus on in the Switching the Current megagame is more or less invisible in the current version of CCM, as it is implicit in almost every part of the game. However, as much of the logic of a megagame is already present, an attempt at redesigning it to focus on the energy system should be well worth the effort.
The third option originated in the fact that the Switching the Current project has a simulation component, attempting to ascertain if and how computer simulations can be used to support playing megagames – I simply asked myself if it is possible to design a megagame based on the computer model that it is supposed to support. This would be quite complicated if the computer model was entirely based on the megagame itself, but as it is currently being developed with the aim to simulate the energy system in Sweden, I plan on basing the design of the megagame on the model of the energy system and then let the game design process inform the development of the computer model. However, as the model is in it’s early phases of development, this approach will have to wait until later this year before I begin to develop it.
With this, I’ve outlined the three paths I have chosen for the game design process. In my next post, I’ll be going into the ‘game design brief’ that I’ll get from my team after they’ve held workshops and interviews with some stakeholders based on a presentation of two of the three design approaches.