Month: October 2022

Minimising movement: using a steady-state game system

The past week I’ve done a lot of designing (and redesigning) of game pieces. In this post, I’ll discuss how the design of game pieces in a megagame may impact players’ movement in the game room (and possibly destroy the game experience).

One of the major concerns of a megagame designer, Wallman argues, is keeping the complexity of the game mechanics low enough to allow a large number of players to play it without slowing the game down. In essence, this means I need to concentrate on the essentials, i.e. “what players must do first and foremost”, which also means reducing the minimum amount of movement and negotiation players as much as possible. The latter may be difficult for board game designers (such as myself), who are used games in which all players sit down around a table, having good overview and game pieces within easy reach. In a megagame, a player who wishes to do a simple sell/purchase action that would take seconds in a board game needs to pick up the game piece, walk over to another table (possibly being intercepted by someone who wants to talk or seeing something interesting they need to check up on), and there hopefully find the right person to talk to – even before negotiations on taking the buy/sell action begins. This takes considerably more time and also consumes a fair amount of focus, which is something a megagame designer needs to take into account.

Our game focuses on energy various forms, and so various types of resources and their exchange for one another and money is at the centre of players’ attention. When designing the Climate Change Megagame we went up against a similar challenge, and having watched twenty people stand in line to talk to a very stressed salesman we reached the conclusion that we needed to use a ‘steady-state system’ in order to minimise the need for players to negotiate for the same resources every turn.

Thus, if a deal to purchase a resource that is consumed every turn (e.g. fuel or electricity) has been made, it will remain in place until one party wishes to break it (to sell the resource to someone else, or perhaps because the resource is no longer available due to e.g. market fluctuations or natural disasters), or change the terms on which it was originally struck (increase/decrease the price, exchange it for some other resource). This has implications for the beginning of the game too, as unless players do something other than go around to see which deals they already have in place, the affairs in the game will remain the same at the start of turn two as after setup. This means that beginners to the game (or even the megagame genre), who may feel a bit confused about all the new impressions and rules, may well spend their first turn looking around and talking to people without too much of a risk. This could be seen as a fair representation of the attitude of the vast majority of people to the climate question at the moment – it’s ‘business as usual’ until they can wrap their heads around what it’s really about and what to do about it.

The primary concern with a steady-state system in terms of game pieces is ownership of game pieces – in a computer game, the computer hands me a list of my game pieces, their location and what deals they are part of, but not so in a physical megagame. In addition to stressing the need to decrease the number of different resources each player handles as much as possible, this has two implications for the game: marking all game pieces so that it’s clear who owns each one of them and imposing a strict rule regarding how deals are broken or renegotiated.

The first is a matter of designing game pieces so that instead of having a bunch of generic ‘electricity’ tiles, each must have a coloured border that corresponds to the team/player to whom the tile belongs. This does not just mean more problems with sorting and storing game pieces, but also that it’s less easy to get change for a large-denomination resource as you can’t simply grab some from a nearby player but need to go to the player’s own stash. The biggest problem here is money, and in order to get away with making it generic, it needs to be placed in a specific way to show the terms of the deal.

Purchasing electricity in the game: The blue Population player’s electric Housing Needs tile (blue border with a house symbol on a yellow background) that is placed on a 10-value Power Grid card (orange border with the number 10 and a power pole symbol on a yellow background) on the Electricity distributor’s (orange player) game board. This deal is valid until one of the players return the other’s card and money.

Currently, Populations have Needs tiles that show a symbol for its category (Food, Goods, Housing, Transportation, Heath & Education) and a coloured square indicating which kind of energy (fossil, electricity, biobased) is required to fulfil it. For example, the blue team has an electric Housing Needs tile (blue border with a house symbol on a yellow background) that, at the start of the game, is placed on a 10-value Power Grid card (orange border with the number 10 and a power pole symbol on a yellow background) on the Electricity distributor’s (orange player) game board. Underneath the Housing tile is a coin (green circle with the number 5 on it) which is the price the blue Population player pays each turn for the power they use. As long as this stays this way, things are fine – the orange player has 5 money to spend each turn (some of which will be tied up in a similar way to secure the electricity needed to power the grid from the purple Electricity Producer), and the blue player has all the power they need to make people in their neighbourhood stay contented.

The moment someone wants to change this, however, they need to observe a simple yet crucial rule: a deal cannot be broken until the counterpart has been notified. This means that should the orange player want to get rid of the blue player’s tile, they can’t just simply take it and place it beside the game board, as that would mean the blue player – who thinks the deal is still on – will likely never know this has happened, and so go on playing as if they have all the power they need. Thus, the orange player must take the money and the blue tile and walk over to the blue Population player’s table and notify them of the fact that the deal is off. Similarly, if the blue player decide they can get a better price elsewhere – or they change to from electricity to heating with oil – they need to notify the orange player that they are taking their money and blue tile elsewhere.

Also, in this system money show up twice – as the money paid by the blue player for the power needs to stay put under the blue tile in our example, the orange player cannot just take it and spend it elsewhere, but needs to take a new coin and use that instead. When breaking a deal or negotiating a lower price for something, this would mean that the orange player needs to take the same amount of money from somewhere, which may not be done very quickly – they likely need to think about the implications and may need to renegotiate one or more deals – and so may cause not only serious chaos, but may require players and control to count the money spent and received for all deals the team/player is involved in throughout all the boards in the entire room, which may be detrimental to the game experience (and even more so should discrepancies be detected).

One solution to this problem is working with a money track, that may go below zero (short-term debt, in effect). This track is adjusted every time a player on the team makes a deal, and money tokens are simply used to show the value of deals. Thus, a player going over to another table to buy something worth 5 money would move the money track back 5 steps, take a 5-value money token from a central stash (overseen by control), and make the deal, whereupon the seller would move their money track forward 5 steps and start thinking about what to do with the money. When the buyer takes back their money, the seller moves their money track back 5 steps and start panicking about which deals they need to renegotiate so as not to end up on a deficit at the end of the turn, when interest on the credit they’ve run up is due.

There are a lot of ifs in this system, and should this system be too difficult for players to grasp and adhere to during a hectic game, parts of the purpose of the game may break down. Thus, the playtest on October 20 is set up to test if it works and if so, how they will improve on it to make things faster and smoother: players can almost always be relied upon to find shortcuts that a game designer would not come up with.

In my next post I’ll discuss my preparations for the playtest in terms of writing a rules document, which always results in interesting findings regarding things that need to be finetuned to make the game work better and which parts of it need a complete overhaul.

Understanding what it’s all about: a rough sketch

The goal for the first part of the journey is to understand the kind of world in which the game will be set. It could easily be assumed that it should be the one we’re all living in – especially as what we’ve set out to do is help people move towards more sustainable consumption patterns – but in fact all games come with a world view of their own (which often happens to coincide with that of the game designer). This involves asking some rather tough questions, such as what kind of view on the future in terms of access to energy, the part played by technology, the role of governments, etc., and so, since my first post in this blog, I’ve done some reading of the publications by the MISTRA Sustainable Consumption research project and also had two long discussions with my colleagues about what this game will ultimately be about. The process of trying to understand the world view that the research my colleagues have been conducting was based on and converting that into game mechanisms has been very rewarding, both in terms of learning more about the game but and as it has allowed me to review my own preconceptions about the world.

One of the main outcomes of this process was that the game will work on the assumption that ‘supply [largely] dictates demand, rather than the other way around’. In short, people in the game will buy the products that the shop owners have in stock (rather than refraining from buying things at all) – however, they may like the choices they are presented with (and ‘forced’ to make) to a higher or lower degree. This aspect is represented by the concept of ‘acceptance’ as used in connection with the 62 ‘enablers’ proposed by the MISTRA research project. As a result, unlike in the Climate Change Megagame, no players will assume the roles of consumers/citizens that react to and may choose to adopt proposed changes based on whether they consider them helpful in achieving their goals in the game, and I will instead experiment with a ‘Public opinion’ track (see illustration) to express how well the population as a whole take to changes implemented by players. This is not at all controversial, as it has been used in similar ways in megagames such as Watch the Skies and Urban Nightmare. However, it means relying on game mechanics designed beforehand to handle the reactions of the public, which may necessitate the use of dice not to turn the whole game into a large-scale exercise in calculating the exact route to the future.

Rough sketch of a 4-5 player board game to be used as a base for the creation of a megagame, drawn during the second team meeting to discuss what the megagame will be about. The ‘enabler’ cards are part of an existing card game used in the MISTRA project.

The second team meeting resulted in a sketch (done in Miro during a break to stretch our legs) that we used to discuss the game in more definite terms. This is one step in making the outcome more tangible and in my experience facilitates boiling our ideas down so as to become manageable and also encourages associations to things that have not yet come up during the discussion, the importance of which are such that one later finds it incomprehensible how one could have failed to see it for so long. The rough sketch we made is of a 4-5 player board game in which the players take on different roles (i.e. ideas of what’s important). Players have personal goals and their own resources, but they also have a couple goals in common (keeping the public happy and implementing more sustainable consumption habits) and a number of cards with ‘enablers’ that – if realised by spending the required amount of resources – will potentially take them closer to their goals. The two main conflict surfaces in the game are which enablers should be realised (or in what order) and from where/who the resources required to realise them should come. Progress in the game is tracked in terms of CO2 emissions and result in consequences that alter conditions in the game, e.g. draughts (less food in the world) or trade wars (access to/prices of resources change).

This is game is uncomplicated enough to create – if we disregard the time-consuming science of translating the enablers/CO2 emission-related consequences/etc. into game terms – and can be both played by smaller groups/families and used as a base for the creation of a megagame. As described by Wallman in his excellent four-post guide ‘Megagame Design The Easy Way’ (which I discuss in a post in the Switching the Current game design blog), using an existing board game to create a megagame involves adding teams of players and reducing the complexity of game mechanics to allow a larger number of players to handle them while focusing on interaction between players. However, before going on to this, I’ll put in some more work on the sketch and discuss it with my colleagues in two weeks’ time, so that they can see in which direction we’re going with this and I gain their help with filling in the gaps in terms of content. The fact that there’s already a card game version using the enablers is a great help in this as we’ll be using some of the cards and also be able to draw on the experience of playing that game with different groups of players. The major difference between the existing and new games is that the former does not have the resource part that the latter will have, and so the experience playing the two games will be quite different.

In my next post, I imagine I’ll be reflecting on the process of refining the sketch to create an outline of the game and also share some insights regarding what exposing it to my team members led to in terms of new directions and ideas.

Realising ideas: creating game pieces

After a few weeks discussing what this game is really about, it’s time to realise what’s in my head and playtest it on October 20 at Linköping University (sign up here to join us – it’s played the old-fashioned way, i.e. on-site and face-to-face). In this post, I’ll tell you a little bit more about how I work as a game designer and also what I’ve learned about working in game design processes involving a team of experts and stakeholders.

For those of you who read my last post, I’ll just add that it generated some really excellent feedback from my team, which resulted in me reading e.g. Hagens (2020). This provided an overview of the issue the game will be dealing with, and gave me a better idea of the scope of the energy system and the changes it may undergo during the game. For the first playtest, we’ll restrict ourselves to the parts of the game in which populations interact with energy distributors for fossil fuels, biofuels, and electricity, who in turn interact with energy producers. Although this is only a very small – and very likely the easiest – part of the game, it will likely prove difficult enough for the players and control team to deal with. The objective will be to give me a fair understanding of how players handle the kind of game mechanics I’m imagining us using in the final game, and I believe this will also give my colleagues an opportunity to learn more about what kinds of negotiations and interactions this level of detail give rise to.

When I design board games, I have an idea (which may come to me suddenly or growing glacially slow over periods of months or even years), which is then followed by sketching, often on a classic paper notepad. What’s in that sketch varies – sometimes it’s a map with game pieces strewn over it, sometimes the structure of the game round or some mechanic – but what never varies is that there are always (huge) gaps that need to be filled in. It seems my mind can only do so much abstract work without losing track of things and, at times, several sketching rounds are needed, during which the game idea changes (sometimes radically). In the end, there’s really only one way to fill in the gaps enough to come close to the structure of a playable game: constructing game pieces.

This is the point where I’m at now – in fairness, however, I’ve already been doing some of this for weeks now. What I’ve learned since I designed my first megagame together with Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist three years ago is that a clear understanding of what the game is about can almost only be reached by sitting everyone (i.e. the experts and stakeholders connected to the game) down and drawing the structure of the game on e.g. a (digital) whiteboard (such as Miro) along with some game pieces to represent key features.

In my experience, discussing things without the assistance of drawing leads mostly to abstract discussions and people stating (often over and over, as if they are likely themselves making up their minds as they speak) what they want the game to be about or what it should do – often in theory or very abstract terms. This is valuable in the beginning of a research project, but until the team sit down and sketch together, I find that the understanding of each individual differs quite a lot from the others, which is very confusing in the game design process. Thus, for my next project (which just so happens to be the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame), I’ll get to sketching a lot faster in order to allow the project participants to create a joint understanding of what the game we’re creating is really about.

As for how my brain works, it cannot create clarity when viewing all parts of the game simultaneously, i.e. from a birds-eye view, and so I need to delve into making game pieces to get to grips with how the game really works. This process is really the same as someone setting about untangling a heap of yarn: they pick a thread, any thread, and follow it for as long as they can without getting stuck. When they do, they pick up another thread and repeat the process. After following a fair amount of threads in this way, I’m usually able to take step back and see the structure of the game in a new light – it may even be that a structure has emerged that was not there before.

What I imagine myself doing when I throw myself into making game pieces is putting myself in the shoes of the player and seeing the game at ‘ground level’, from the perspective of those who are going to play it. If I have a certain game piece placed in this position and tied to this kind of action, what options am I left with as a player standing in the room by this table, looking out over a sea of people? Will I be so engrossed in understanding my options and meticulously planning the perfect move that I will lose sight of the focus of the game? Will I realise that I need to talk to a number of people to make sense of what’s really going on, understanding which actions and resources I have access to and how to use them to survive the round?

This work is both intensely enjoyable and very frustrating, and it takes a lot of time, some of which is spent realising that all I’ve done so far is not going to work. Also, it is best done on my own. I find that discussing the game with others should be done in relation to more or less complete parts of the game (or when completely out of ideas), as such discussions inevitably lead to taking a step back and looking at the overarching theme/goal of the game, which is less than productive when creating/modifying existing game pieces and making sense of how they fit together. This is my current view, and it may well be that it changes over the coming months and years of game design.

Those are my thoughts looking up from a number of hours creating game pieces and fitting them together to make a game – in my next blog post, I’ll likely discuss some thoughts that have popped up during the week and after presenting and discussing the prototype to my team.

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