Month: December 2022

Game economics: valuable input

Since I last wrote I’ve been busy trying to structure the game design process for Playtest 3, which is scheduled to take place on February 6, 2023. This has meant going over which parts to make changes to and which to leave as they are – and this made me realise I haven’t had time to validate the economic system with someone who knows what they’re talking about. Luckily, I had been one of project members gave me a contact with an economic scientists, and what follows is what came out of our discussion of the game.

Card given to population players in version 0.1 that states the cost of change in addition to the price of the new contract. The difficulty was for players to remember this rule, both due to it being negative in terms of the change needed to achieve a sustainable energy system and because it posed an additional obstacle to change on top of making a decision what to change, finding someone to provide the necessary energy, negotiating a reasonable deal, and understanding the game mechanics that would allow the change to take place. It was introduced not only to represent the costs involved in changing to a different type energy, but also for fear of players would be able to change all their unsustainable energy to sustainable one in a single turn without even breaking a sweat, which might prove anticlimactic – and be so easy and unrealistic as to spoil the experience for the players, whatever problems they would be facing on the next turn.

An important part of this game is that change is never free – there’s always a cost involved, be it in terms of money, time, or mental effort. This has been clear to me from the start, but the way this should be represented in the game has not, and so some input from the economic scientist was very welcome. He mentioned that research indicate that people need to feel that making a change provide them with a significant benefit – be it in terms of money or other values – for them to actually go through with a change such as the ones we are discussion in our game, e.g. changing from a fossil-driven car to an electric one. Being human myself, I knew this, but as a game designer I feared that the ease of exchanging one token for another on the gameboard would not be a high enough obstacle to make the choices players make in the game seem as realistic or difficult enough, so I’ve put in cards saying they have to pay money when changing from one type of token to another.

What I learned from Playtest 2, however, was that my fears were based on my being a board game designer – I had not considered the threshold of navigating a room full of people, talking to half a dozen of them, and then trying to make contact with the right person to get an idea if it would be possible to make the change, and what it would involve. I was somewhat misled by Playtest 1, which was small enough (12 people) that players could overview the situation to some extent, allowing them to take decisions that was more or less like those taken by a board gamer. So, when reminded of the fact that a deal must be significantly better – not just equally good or slightly better – I decided to exclude the mechanical cost of change and trust in the social one for the next playtest: after all, in Playtest 2 not a single change was made on the first turn and only one on the second, and that was only 19 players and they had not even looked their cards, due to miscommunication on the part of Control.

Another thing the economic scientist made me aware of is the scope of the retirement fund system, which made me realise that I need to include people’s saving money for (consumption in) the future in some way. The reason I want to look into this isn’t that I want the players to get a pension in the game, but that it may be used by Control to wreak havoc on the financial system – and the same is true for all the other parts of the game that involves the world at large. I’ll be considering putting in a team playing the Swedish income pension fund system, so as to put an emphasis on long-term investments in the financial system.

What I was most worried about was the shareholder happiness system, but as it turns out needn’t have been – instead I learned a lot about how I can integrate the share capital system even more into the game. The first part was that shareholders have a tendency to go where the money is, so when one company have a bad year, their capital moves to another company – or to state bonds or overseas investments, should such be on offer and promising a higher yield. This will make for an even more competitive atmosphere, which is further powered by the fact that the Swedish law states that CEOs aren’t allowed to compromise the profits of their shareholders, effectively tying their hands to make changes towards more sustainable solutions that involve great investments. That is, unless the shareholders – some of which are in the room, playing other roles – state that they are willing to accept lower dividends if the company also achieves goals tied to e.g. the sustainability of the energy system. The other option is to convince politicians to push for a change of the law, which might equally long – and may convince investors to place their money elsewhere if Swedish CEOs are free to ‘squander’ their money without discussing it with them first.

Whether players will work out this in time to actually make a change or simply try to work around it while the continual growth system simply goes on will be very interesting to see. What the potential development of this part of the game has made me realise, however, is that the stock market may need to be formalised into e.g. a separate board, so that players who own shares take time out of their turn to go there and take decisions about their money. This will prove to be a challenge, which may well be solved by developing the roles of the population players – their roles as a team become more complex, which gives room for more players and thus roles, one of which could certainly be handling the shares of the population, allowing them to focus on one aspect of the game rather than trying to see the whole picture the same way the role of is politician is already meant to. This opens up for further development of the array of roles given to population players – high-earning teams will have roles connected to politics and money, whereas other teams will have roles connected to practical and communication skills, making the teams differ from one another not only in terms of economic factors.

At the moment, the game is still in the process of expanding to handle all the aspects of the world that the project on achieving a sustainable energy system deems necessary. There will very soon come a time when reductions in terms of game pieces and mechanics and limitations in terms of how much of the world is represented in the game. As to this, I’ve received valuable advice from a megagame design colleague of mine, who pointed me to Ed Silverstone’s post on the Megagame Assembly blog and reminded me that megagame start in player interaction and add the minimum amount of mechanics to make it fly, whereas board games (which, as I mentioned earlier, is my backyard) use mechanics to achieve an experience. In this vein, one of my greatest challenges is that the connections between game boards and players must be very loose – so the fact that this game involves a tight-rope dance with balancing different energy types in a (in the case of electricity) more or less real-time system encompassing practically the entire room is less than optimal. There’s an energy system model in the background too, looking to be integrated into the game somehow – perhaps this is a good thing, as that will allow me to push interconnections between tables and players to the model, so that the game can work like a megagame rather than a huge version of Power Grid?

Imagining the future: rethinking the first iteration

Rethinking a concept even before I begin to create the game happens to me all the time – and so it was not unexpected that it would happen for this game too. What was unexpected was when it happened: a week before we were set up for a playtest. As it turned out, the playtest was cancelled and we made a workshop of it with a few of the participants instead, and in this post I’ll discuss some of the ideas that came out of the workshop and which I will consider implementing in the first version of the game to be playtested, likely in February 2023.

The version I had intended building have been discussed in an earlier post, and the one-hour version of the game that was one of the things that made me rethink the concept I’d settled on was the subject of the previous post. In short, what I had in mind was six teams of players using their resources – in the form of five different forms of capital – to realise and maintain enablers over several game turns, reshaping the way parts of society works and hopefully managing to reduce CO2 emissions for Sweden as a whole. I had a map laid out which would be used to show geographical differences, but on the whole the game would be about using legislation and local initiatives to incentivise and force a non-player population represented by various numerical values into doing what the players wanted them to. Both the population and the players would be affected by the outside world in terms of events that would be played into the game by Control based on what changes the players managed to implement.

The first bug to hit my windshield came from a member of the project team who, when I mentioned the number of different types of capital commented that there ‘were a lot of them’. This brought to mind something another megagame designer said at one time about resources in megagames: ‘there should ideally only be one, so as not to complicate things too much’. This stuck in my mind and as I created the one-hour version, this turned into every player having only one card, but in a different colour.

The second came during the workshop, when the use of the map was questioned – there are really no geographical issues to deal with in the research we’re communicating, as consumption patterns has a different set of boundaries. In combination with the fact that it was stated early on that we are not to focus on individual con-/prosumer perspectives as related research shows that consumption patterns are not guided primarily by the choices made by individuals but what’s made available to them by businesses, I began to think that the map we should be playing on should be more of a mental/social character rather than geographical. In connection with this, we discussed using Raworth’s doughnut as a possible way of showing progress in the game, and this may be the kind of map we’re looking for.

During the workshop, we also discussed the overall structure of the game and I put forward the idea that we structure it so that there are number of endpoints that the players will encounter depending on which enablers they manage to realise and maintain: call it a number of paths they can walk down, but with a rather short space between them, so that if they take a sharp turn during one round, they will end up with a very different endpoint, but still one Control has planned for. This would be beneficial to Control, as they would not have to wing it every time, trying to assess what things are plausible, but instead would have a scoring system that they can rely on to tell them which path is nearest and which events would make the most sense, and then improvise based on that (or stick to the script). Most of all, it will benefit the players, as they will be aiming for an endpoint (happy ending) which simply isn’t available – and this will make the debriefing and learning outcome the more rewarding. We’re considering using something like ARUP’s Four Plausible Futures as inspiration, and the idea is for the endpoints to be not quite what the players expected, and hopefully different most of the time, in order to increase the replayability of the game.

What’s left to consider, which became apparent during the one-hour game, is the enablers themselves: they are (part of) what we aim to communicate, and so should be explored more in detail. Rather than having a set of fancy systems controlling resources, buildings, and trade, we should be focusing on the enablers and go into more details regarding what each enabler really involves – who needs to know what and be working with which things, and when? Here, the easy solutions – let someone else do all the work, i.e. just have the politicians put some legislation in place to fix the problem (and look surprised when no one followed it or everyone used vague wording to get away with doing only 1% of what was intended) – will likely be very tempting, whereas the more groundbreaking changes involving players going against their roles (e.g. businesses forgoing profit to achieve long-term goals) will be more challenging. How this system is supposed to look is as yet veiled in mist, but I’m thinking they should consist of several smaller steps, each of which risks interfering with other players’ agendas and counteracting other enablers.

Another aspect is that of ‘business as usual’ activities: if the only choice in the game is between which enabler to realise and doing nothing, the game risks being rather dull and predictable. Ideally there should be a range of actions to choose from, only some of which are beneficial to enablers, so that players are tempted to improve their situation by e.g. economic growth with the vague hope of doing something in the last round that will change everything and win the day. This part of the game, i.e. making what we’re doing currently as exciting and promising (in some ways but not in others) as the future envisioned by the enablers, should be given some real thought, so as not to end up with the ’business as usual – spend all your resources to make €5 and wait for the next round to begin’ action.

These are my thoughts at the moment, and over the coming month they will be developed into what I’m hoping will be the first, playable prototype of the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame. Did you have any thoughts when you read this? Feel free to express them in the comments section below!

One-hour game: cards-and-agreements version

A week before the planned playtest of version 0.1 of the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame, two of our project members were to hold a one-hour presentation, and so came up with the idea of playing a short version of the game. This proved to be a welcome challenge, as it worked to question some of the ideas I put forward in my previous post and on which I had planned to base the first version of the game. Creating a 20-player version of a megagame with the time constraint of 60 minutes, including role distribution, rules explanation, and debriefing, would certainly prove Wallman’s point about the need to keep the complexity of the game mechanics low enough to allow a large number of players to play it without slowing the game down that is equally valid for the six-hour megagame we plan on creating. In this post, I’ll present the game I created and draw some conclusions regarding what parts of this can be used in the megagame.

18-player setup of the one-hour version of the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame. There are six tables, one for each group of roles (bottom of the image), and 35 enabler cards laid out on four tables. The rules of the game (right side of the image) were printed on the back of the role cards.

My plan of using five different kinds of capital (economic, cultural, social, political, and technological) would be far too complex for this game, and so I boiled it down to that several players need to agree on a proposal for it to be implemented and that the time it took for players to negotiate would be the only resource they spent. However, as the game is so short (ten-minute turns) and some players may be more interested in winning than playing the game, they may skip negotiations and simply walk over to a table and state that they agree to all proposals, as they’re more concerned with the world not ending than about themselves getting the best deal possible as individuals. I’ve seen this kind of ‘altruism’ before, and feel that it cuts the game short in a way that doesn’t help players reflect on the world but rather leads them to comments about the game being unrealistic.

Thus, I decided that players would have to put their card down beside the enabler card and wouldn’t get it back until it was realised; this cost would stop blanket support and furthermore incentivise players to try to get others to sign on to help them get their cards back. Again, I saw before me a trio of smart players realising that they could simply realise all cards on a table with their three colours on in under a minute, then going on the next table, and then the next – after which they simply had to find a player with another colour on their role card and repeat the process, without need for negotiation, again breaking the game.

An enabler card from the Food category used in the one-hour version of the game. The card starts on the ‘Proposal’ side (left) and once realised is turned over on the ‘Policy side’ (right), showing that it is now in effect and providing one of the eight Food symbols required for the players to ‘win’ the game. The cost to realise the proposal and then maintain the policy is stated in the form of coloured circles at the bottom of the card – each circle represents a player role card of the specified colour being placed next to/touching the card to show that the owner supports the proposal/policy.

This dilemma paired with the realisation that the roles were rather vague – players wouldn’t have time to read role descriptions beforehand and come up with role interpretations – made me think of how to represent common interests in the form of game mechanics: I put tags on cards representing less/more (orange/green) of a number of basic ideas, such as individual means of transportation/vacation by plane (car symbol), meat-based diet (plate and cutlery), buying new furniture (house), and profit-driven market economy (dollar sign). This would guide players regarding which enabler cards were interesting for them (same symbol and colour as one of the tags on their role card) and which were directly opposing their goals (same symbol but opposite colour). After some thought, I added the rule that players would only get their cards back (and thus be able to use them again the same turn) after realising an enabler card with the same tag (symbol and colour) as one on their role cards.

These additions would both say something about the roles and prevent power gamers from ending the game on the first turn. There were another aspect that I felt I needed the game to communicate to, and that is that just because a bonus-malus system for flight travel has been agreed on, or an initiative to eat less meat or buy more second-hand furniture put in place, players would now be free to move on the next issue, as they had now ‘fixed’ the problem, as this is not how complex systems work (see Donella Meadows’s excellent book Thinking in Systems). Thus, I made all enabler cards two-sided with a cost to maintain it on the back – to ‘win’ the game, players would need not only to say yes to a bunch of exciting proposals, but also out in the work of maintaining them, every turn. This would also mean that players that didn’t like the proposal but were unable to stop them could negotiate with those who were to maintain the policy and offer them juicy deals on other proposals (more suited to their goals) to let the policy go back to being an unrealised policy again. This felt very much like how things work after the hype has passed, and so I felt it was worth adding.

Three role cards (left and middle) and one Protests card (rightmost). The coloured circles at the bottom of the role cards are used to realise/maintain a proposal/policy card. The green and orange tags on the left and right sides of role cards show the interests of the role: the Leader of the Future Party wants to decrease the availability of individual transportation (orange car symbol), whereas the Town house owner wants to increase it. The CEO of the service company is in favour of a growth economy (green dollar sign). The rules stated on each role card is different, and the prosumer has the ability to block one proposal or policy card each turn using the Protests card, which may be used as a bargaining chip in their negotiations with other players.

After implementing the proposal/policy sides of enabler cards, I added some special abilities to role cards to make some players favour the hype around proposals and some disinclined to take part in it. One such pair is made up of politicians, who get their card back regardless of tags if they have supported a proposal, and government agencies, who get their cards back just for maintaining any policy. I also added other kinds of incentives, such as the ability of the Influencer role to once per turn return someone’s card to them (even themselves) regardless of tags, which could be used as a bargaining chip.

The original idea was to show projected CO2 emissions based on which enablers had been made policy and for how long they had been in place, but there was no time to implement this, so it may have to wait until the full version of the megagame. Instead, to give players a common goal and define an endpoint to the game, I set eight symbols (printed on the ‘policy’ side of most cards) in each of the three categories as a winning condition. As it turned out, three 10-minute turns were played and only a handful of enablers were flipped to their ‘policy’ side, so the goal was clearly too high in relation to the level of difficulty/complexity. It would perhaps have been more rewarding with some kind of projection to measure the impact the players in fact had on the world, and so this will be implemented.

As for other take-homes, I’ve realised that reducing the complexity of the game I envisioned earlier this autumn is a very good idea, as it will help players focus on the topic of the game and negotiations with other players. Also, some feedback from the participants in the game session suggested that the enabler cards were rather anonymous, i.e. as the title was the only text on the enabler cards they had very little idea what they were trying to accomplish, and so these need to be not only equipped with QR codes to allow players to read more about the findings of the MISTRA project, but also game mechanics such as tags and in-game effects that will help players decide which enablers they should spend resources and time getting off the ground (and maintaining).

Role descriptions are important parts of any megagame, and I’ll make sure to put in some work on those, both in terms of general descriptions and goals and game mechanics that help them play the game. I will also take some time to consider which roles are to be included, as the six groups used currently may not be the only ones. Also, the tags/categories of interests that I came up with didn’t exactly match the enabler cards, so that very few of them had relevant tags other than food/furniture/vacation, so work will have to go into finding connections between the cards that are more relevant.

This concludes this after-play reflections post, and in the next post I’ll discuss the workshop that was held in late November during which this version of the game was discussed.

Feet of clay: the market and the financial system

In this fourth and final post about Playtests 1 and 2, we will discuss some of the parts of the game that were less visible, but if and when they changed would have altered the conditions noticeably for all players: the financial system. Linked to this is the bank, created prior to Playtest 2, and the market, which represents most of the outside world and what is going on there. These parts of the game that takes on the macro scale – and here it is good to remember that it is set in a small part of a small country – and so largely fall to Control to handle. This means that there must be a system in place for players’ actions to influence the macro scale, lest we end up with a roleplaying game in which the game master has decided which boss monster the players will face during the epic final battle. This is a megagame, and so there is no such thing as a set ending or a predictable way the players will navigate the obstacles an uncertain future throws at them – however, we will use scenario-like system which allows us to make quick decisions regarding which financial levers to pull and extreme weather knobs to turn depending on which way the players are leaning, leaving players to react to these situations and handle them in any way they can and find reasonable.

The market boards used in Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom). The market board is simply an exchange rate (e.g. $1 for 5 oil) and a stack of tokens available for purchase – the one used in Playtest 2 added the domestic/international distinction more clearly, but it was implied in the one used in Playtest 1 (e.g. the distinction between Swedish/foreign electricity). The most notable addition in Playtest 2 was raw materials, represented by a minecart symbol, which was used to make export goods and constructing buildings.

The least intrusive control mechanism is the market, which basically represents the rest of the world, from other parts of Sweden to the EU and beyond. Raw material shortages, price changes (up or down) for any resource, or even simply a headline on the news saying ‘unstable market’ are very subtle tools to change players’ outlook on almost anything on their game boards. Such events may also shift their attention from project cards promising a 30% reduction in electricity consumption as there is no raw materials to construct the passive houses, or it may be that something else they need all of a sudden becomes so costly that they simply have to postpone their construction plans to save some other part of their board from falling apart. However, players are in no way forced by Control to do something, roll any dice or take decisions other than if they can afford the resources they purchase from the market at the current price – the worst that can happen is that they no longer have access to a resource they depend on, in which case they need to get creative to avoid cascade effects.

We have used this kind of effects to a limited extent and mostly in the form of price changes based on the gut feeling of members of the Control team. However, in future games we will structure this a little more: should a trade war have ensued during Playtests 1 and 2, the fact is that no member of the Control team knew the amount of e.g. Goods on the market, which means that a shortage could not be effectively implemented – all that would have happened was that there was no more Goods to be purchased, but all the Goods on the population and local authorities boards would have stayed where they are, making no impact on the game unless someone wanted to buy more Goods than they currently had. A more reasonable course of events would have been to announce a 50% reduction in Goods tokens across the board and a 100% rise in prices at the start of the turn, having players return their markers to the market and trying to negotiate black market terms with Control to be able to cover some of the losses of QoL and money.

The bank board used in Playtest 2. On this board is found a couple of major levers for altering the scenario: mortgages, international investments, and loans from the national bank. Should any of these fail, the bank players would need to use the other to save their hides, as the bank is also subject to the same shareholder happiness system that other businesses, although the stakes are a lot higher.

I found that the version used during Playtest 1 was unable to implement a worldwide depression in any other way than simply stating that it had happened. Thus, for Playtest 2 I created the bank board, which is meant to capture the essence of the clay feet of the financial system: the bank borrows money from the national bank, which it uses to give out house loans to the population and invest in shares in both domestic and foreign companies. I haven’t had the chance to run this part of the system by anyone with relevant expertise, but I’m hoping to do so before the next version sees light of day – what it is meant to do, however, is to provide Control with the ability to reflect the state of the world in ways that will create cascading effects in the game: the interest on the loan from the national bank goes from 1 to 5% overnight, which means the interest on house loans effectively puts the poorest population players out of a home, putting pressure on employers to raise wages, forcing them to increase prices, and so on. Also, plunging one continent into financial chaos means the bank needs to cover losses equal to the housing loans of a whole section of the population, which means they need to either increase the interest or increase their loan from the national bank. There are several ways this system can go wrong and create situations that make players look up and notice the world around them, very much like what has happened over the last few years.

The purpose of the financial system is simply to provide Control with means of changing the conditions in the game – but where does the game end? Well, it could be anywhere, but as we’re working with the Swedish Energy Agency, we’re planning on using their Four Futures to create a scoring system that each turn will help Control decide on a set of external factors will be implemented, e.g. extreme weather events, local/global political incidents, etc. The scores will at first be based on which project cards the players implement – and should no cards be implemented, as was the case during Turn 1 of Playtest 2, there is a default scenario track which will send the players down the road of one of the four futures.

One of the project cards that players can implement – in this case Passive houses. The letters ‘AC’ in the top right corner are part of the scoring system that helps Control choose which scenario/path the game will take on the next turn, i.e. which external factors will come into play.

This is our way of using the setting to make sure that the Control team isn’t overwhelmed by all the questions from inexperienced players (which will make up almost the entire player base for this game), thereby preventing them from implementing more extensive changes to the exterior world. This has happened a couple of times during playtests, and this disappoints players as they feel that there aren’t any challenges aside from negotiating good deals with the other players, which is a full-time job in itself, but not the reason they came to play the game – after all, why play a game about making society more sustainable if the game setting does not in any way indicate that these changes are needed? These questions are related to the main learning goals of the game, and so the limited-number-of-scenarios system will be designed to enable players to reflect on the choices they made during the game and promote rewarding discussions during the debriefing after the game.

These are some of the thoughts that come up after the two first playtests – if you have ideas, questions, or want to contribute something from a player’s perspective, feel free to do so in the comments section: all ideas are welcome!

Picking up the trash: the local authorities’ boards

The local authorities boards used in Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom). Between playtests, the local authorities were expanded from one board to four, one of which was the Mayor’s office, handling all financial matters and receiving instructions from the Regional Council.

In this post, I’ll discuss the local authorities boards, which expanded quite a lot between Playtests 1 and 2. This was not entirely due to the fact that Playtest 2 involved people working in the local authorities, but also that the two players that played the local authorities during Playtest 1 was quite confused by the many different areas in which they were involved: healthcare/schools, waste management, and the public transportation system. Thus, I divided up the local authorities in three departments with one board each, and added a fourth called the Mayor’s office, handling all financial matters and receiving instructions regarding how to manage the municipality from the Regional Council, consisting of one player from each population team.

This seemed to work reasonably well for the three department players (one per department, sitting around one table) – they didn’t seem overworked and had time to interact with other players around project cards. The Mayor and her financial advisor, on the other hand, who sat at a separate table a few yards away, were busy talking to other players coming to their table every minute of the order phases of both turns. I failed to give the members of the Regional Council clear instructions regarding where and how they were to meet, and so they got stuck halfway to the council chamber/Mayor’s table on the first turn, meaning the Mayour didn’t speak much with them. This was remedied during the second turn, and the politicians spent more time at the Mayor’s table – however, the Mayor hardly spoke a word with her department heads, meaning that the initiative for the few changes they made didn’t come from the Mayor’s office and/or Regional Council. This part of the game will undergo development as I now have a better understanding of the way players see the roles and how negotiations work – one thing that may be attempted is to have a stricter round structure, so that the Regional Council will have scheduled, set-agenda meetings with the Mayor, followed by a meeting between the Mayor and the departments heads to set the budget.

Although all three departments are important in their own way, the Health & Education department were criticized the most for not being able to provide all the service the populations desired (which was by design from the start of the game). However, this system was quite straightforward, which was not the case with the waste collection system. In Playtest 1, only the part of household waste that goes to the waste-to-energy plants were included, which meant that all waste was placed on the population boards, and frankly ignored as no changes to the amount of waste was done during the three turns the game lasted. In Playtest 2, a division into waste, recycling, and landfill was made, and – based on data on handling of waste in Sweden – only 25% of all waste was placed on the population boards and the rest on Regional industries, as a representation of all other businesses in the region.

Technical department board used during Playtest 2. The Technical department has two functions: it collects waste from the population and company boards, and handles landfill. The landfill has a capacity (50 at the start of the game) and the current state is tracked on the blue track below (32 at the start of the game). The waste collection trucks are paid for based on how much waste/recycling/landfill there is to pick up, which is tracked on the blue track (77 at the start of the game).
Waste on population boards in Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom). The truck tokens placed over the garbage can symbols show that the local authorities have the capacity to collect the waste; this was skipped in Playtest 2, where the capacity was recorded only on the Technical department’s board.
Waste on company boards in Playtest 2. The Regional industries’ board (top) was used as a catch-all for all businesses (e.g. restaurants) in the region with regard to waste, so as to test the system. The company Elementa (bottom) used waste to produce district heating (two agreement cards on the top left in the image), resulting in landfill (blue token on the right), which was transported to the landfill site by the Technical department, for a price (agreement card on the bottom right in the image).

This part of the game was not used much in either playtest, which indicates either that it is as yet not an important part – it is in reality, however, as the district heating system is heavily dependent on access to waste, and the region is heavily invested in its district heating system – or that it was difficult to understand, possibly due to being distributed all over the room and half a dozen boards. This needs to be looked at in more detail in the future, but this does not necessarily mean the system needs to become more detailed and complex – perhaps it could be reduced to domestic market access to burnable waste and the Technical department board discarded. As waste and consumer goods are tightly linked, there should perhaps be a separate ‘waste board’ that allows players to see and change this part of the energy system from a slightly different perspective.

The maintenance system was added to the game for Playtest 2 to represent costs involved in maintaining complex systems. The system is quite simple – for each building, roll two dice and add the number of wrench symbols printed on both the building itself and any tokens on top of it – and were received quite well. How to remove the tokens was described on cards (Repair team and Skilled engineers) given to the players, and this took a bit of time for them to connect. The timing of when to roll was also a bit unclear, and may be remedied by clearer game turn structure sheets being printed and handed out to players and Control next time.

Two buildings with different kinds of maintenance needs (top left and middle), a reference sheet for how to roll for maintenance (top right), and two different cards that allows maintenance to be performed (bottom left and right). The Landfill building has a pre-printed maintenance (two wrench symbols), which means that the player will roll two dice and add 2 to the result – if the result is 6 or higher, a number of wrench tokens will be added to the card. For the Waste collection building, it has no pre-printed wrench symbols, but each time it is run, a wrench token is added to it (twice this turn, as there are two tokens placed on it). Pre-printed wrench symbols cannot be removed, but wrench tokens can, as is shown on the Repair team and Skilled engineers cards: the light grey area has a once-per-turn ability, the dark grey states a (less favourable) action that can be taken as many times as the player has money to pay for it. The ultimate result of ignoring maintenance is breakdown, as can be seen on the reference sheet, which is handled by Control and likely involves having to rebuild parts of the building – unless the building is a nuclear reactor, in which case results are more noticeable for all players.

Overall, the local authorities boards will undergo changes based on whether it is deemed they are contributing to the game experience – that the local authorities are an important piece of the overall puzzle is beyond doubt, but in which way they are to be played is as yet not clear. When creating the Mayor’s office quite a few financial aspects gathered there – almost by themselves, it seemed – and so gave rise to the idea that the financial aspect of the game needs to be expanded, not least to enable Control to throw interesting challenges at players in relation to the monetary system. This is the topic of the final post in this four-post expose of the two first playtests, and will involve some discussion of possible scenarios that the players can encounter and how the project cards, which we have just mentioned in passing so far, may come to impact the game.

Service and profits: the company boards

The previous post gave a rough description of the population boards, and in this post we’ll have a look at the companies, all but one of which are involved in making sure the population has all the energy they need (and can pay for). This part of the game changed quite a bit between versions: the overall structure of the version used for Playtest 1 was based on models of the energy systems and divided companies into either producers or distributors of energy (two and three companies, respectively). As most of the energy used in the region is imported, this structure worked reasonably well for fossil fuel, biofuel, and electricity; for waste-to-energy, however, this was much too detailed, as what is in reality a single company working closely with the local authorities’ waste management department became two companies, one producer and one distributor. Thus, these two were merged for Playtest 2, and may even be merged with the waste collection department in the next version.

Setup of company boards for Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom). This part of the game underwent quite a few changes between playtests: two companies merged, one disappeared altogether, and the general industry board was upgraded to a company, among other things.

Also, during Playtest 1 one member of the Control team noticed that many of the players wanted to talk to someone in charge of the ‘general industry’ board which I had placed on the sidelines as I did not at the time see them as directly involved in the energy system. For Playtest 2, I constructed a proper role and board for the export-oriented industry (called ‘Regional industries’ in the game) and gave them the role as the major employer in the region – the idea was that the population players, whose wages are paid for mostly by the export industry, would quickly notice when the export market began to fluctuate. This did not happen during the playtest due to time and scenario constraints, and so this connection will have to be tested in a future version.

The company boards are to be relatively straightforward: raw materials/energy is bought and then used in various types of building to make products/other types of energy, which are then sold to other players (or the market, in the case of Regional industries). Although this seems rather simple, I’ve found it to be rather difficult to implement in the game in a way that is easy to quickly understand for the players. This is partly because I’ve limited myself to using A3 boards – which are too small for the amount of cards and tokens stacked on them for some companies – but mostly because I’ve avoided going into designing game parts describing very detailed production/conversion mechanics, as this is to be a game that deals with the overall development of society rather than finetuning of specific mechanics: in short, more Diplomacy than Agricola.

Company board belonging to electricity distributor Conglomo used in Playtest 1. On the right side of the board, all the electricity purchased from the market (yellow tokens with lightning symbol and thin black board) and from two other companies (tokens with large lightning symbol and broad brown and purple boards). The card entitled ‘Electrical transformer station’ in the middle is used to transfer the electricity to the grid, represented by tokens such as the two on the left (yellow with mast/lightning symbol and broad orange board). This comes at a cost (energy loss due to e.g. heat) of 10%, which means that the 68 electricity tokens (each corresponding to 100 GWh, amounting to a total of 6.8 TWh of electricity) on the right result in 61 on the left, 59 of which has been sold to other players.
Company board belonging to electricity distributor Conglomo used in Playtest 2. In this version, the Electrical transformation station has been removed from the board and the energy loss-step skipped altogether, so that the electricity Conglomo buys is the same amount that is sold to other players. The two tracks at the bottom state available amount of electricity (brown) and the amount used/sold (blue). In Playtest 1, the Conglomo player spent most of their time trying to figure out where their electricity was sold to (almost all players in the room were their customers), so in Playtest 2 agreements had been added to the board, showing who bought and who sold electricity on a regular basis. Also, the power grid itself became two buildings with max capacity (a total of 60 at the start of the game) and maintenance needs (wrench symbols).

For Playtest 2, all companies were designed with three roles: CEO, salesperson, and operations manager. The CEO would be managing overall strategy and shareholders, the salesperson agreements to purchase the company’s products, and the operations manager purchase of raw materials/energy and the production/distribution buildings and their maintenance. As there were two players per team, they mostly took on all roles simultaneously and so this part of the system is relatively untested. An idea for next version is to expand the board horizontally so as to separate financials/shareholder happiness, available products/sales contracts, and production/maintenance, making for a more organized game experience.

Tracking progress of Conglomo during Playtest 1, inspired by Two Degrees to Midnight by Darren Green of Crisis Games. The price of the company’s shares could be increased by paying $10. The CEO was made a share holder of the company and their goal was to make sure their shares were worth as much as possible at the end of the game. This did not prove to be a strong motivation and this track was mostly forgotten.
Tracking the progress of companies during Playtest 2. All companies started with a share capital and at the end of each round would pay dividends to their shareholders (some of which were other players) as a percentage of that share capital. All companies started at 10%, and if they paid more than that (i.e. 15 or 20%), their shareholders would be happy and reward the company/CEO by increasing the total share capital; else, the shareholders would be unhappy and the marker moved down one step, decreasing the total share capital (repayment of which must be done by the company next turn) and eventually firing the CEO. Either way, the CEO/company had strong incentives to keep their shareholders happy – the logic proved to be somewhat difficult for most players to grasp, however, and it took quite some time to implement it.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the company boards in Playtest 2 was the profit/loss system as a motivator for CEOs to use the company’s money to keep shareholders happy rather than spending all on altruistic initiatives and blue-sky research. This has been a problem in other games I’ve constructed, and the share price track used in Playtest 1 was mostly ignored, likely because it didn’t do anything to the company, only to the final score of a single player in a game that is seen as being won by all players collectively (saving the world) or at least the team. The system used in Playtest 2 was confusing to get into, but at the end of Turn 2 was very noticeable – huge sums were paid in dividends and the companies that didn’t manage to were severely hampered (and very susceptible to invitations to use ‘creative bookkeeping’ to dip into next round’s earnings to pay for dividends this turn). A slightly modified version of this system will be used for coming playtests and the rules written down for CEO to study beforehand, so as to make it easier for them to plan ahead and set aside part of the profits to get ahead in the game of having enough money to spend on making changes.

A very interesting observation is that none of the players objected to this ever-growing-profit system, and only one company tried to plead with their shareholders using a promising plan for reusing waste as raw materials to keep them happy without having to pay steep dividends. In degrowth scenarios this will probably come to a point where companies need to choose between paying off their entire share capital with locally raised funds or going bankrupt, which will be interesting to see. It will also be interesting to see a game in which population players become aware of and begin questioning the system as it enriches some of them, but drains quite a lot of money that could have been used to aid in transitioning to a sustainable society.

In the next post I’ll be covering the local authorities boards and the waste management system, among other things.

Heart of the game: the population boards

Setup for Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom), comprising 12 and 19 players, respectively.

Since my last post, we’ve run both the first and second playtests of the game and I didn’t hold my promise of discussing how to write a rules document was written – as there was none. Going into the game design process very often swallows up a whole week of design, during which I wander from one part of the game to the next, making game pieces, connecting them, figuring out their logic and then redesigning other pieces until as much of the game as possible fits with all the other parts. At the end of such a week, I could easily write a rules document, and it would even be very beneficial to the game as that would allow me to iron out the last creases, but by that time I’m very often out of both time and mental energy, unfortunately. Thus, no blog posts or rules documents, so far – I’m planning to have better luck next time, as the modifications to the game structure will gradually become fewer with each version (I hope).

This post is the first of a series of after-the-fact posts in which I in turn will discuss the four main parts of the game: the populations, companies, local authorities, and the financial system. I will discuss both versions 0.1 and 0.2, which were played during Playtests 1 (12 players) and 2 (19 players), respectively, and discuss the reasoning behind design decisions and differences between versions. Let me just say that both playtests were very intense, rewarding, and enjoyable experiences as our enthusiastic and brave playtesters plunged themselves headlong into the megagame experience and really made the most of our hours together – thank you!

The heart of the game is the people for whom more or less all the energy in the game is intended: the population. The reason for letting players take on the role of population is that we want to avoid making the masses into a metric that is simply to be manipulated by the other players – instead, we want to create situations in which the population players not only resist change or thwart other people’s schemes, but also put pressure on e.g. CEOs of large companies by negotiating directly with them, or even scream at them.

Thus, in the first playtest we had four population boards with one player for each, sitting around a table. Even though the populations were very different (rich/poor, city-/country-dwellers) this created a very strong team which were considered a tough crowd by the companies – perhaps too tough, some said, as the population is more easily led in reality. This may have been due to them effectively forming one team (we had planned on there being two in each, but there were not enough playtesters), so for the second playtest the number of teams were cut to three (roughly upper, middle, and lower class, with the latter living in the countryside), and we had two players each. They still sat at one table, and still formed a strong team, but less so than during the first playtest.

Two versions of population boards: the board of the wealthy, city-dwelling population used in Playtest 1 (top) and the board of the lower class population used in Playtest 2 (bottom). The only difference between the former board and the other three used in the same playtest was the number of red, orange, yellow, and green spaces on the Quality of Life (QoL) track. The latter board differed from the other two population boards used in Playtest 2 not only in terms of number of coloured spaces on the QoL track, but also the negative numbers on the spaces for each category, indicating how detrimental a deficiency in this category would be to QoL, and the numbers above each space in the categories, stating how much energy was needed to satisfy the needs/requirements of the population. Also, for Playtest 2, the game board had been designed to allow space for agreement and project cards to be placed on it.

The basic function of the population board was to provide information on the current happiness, energy consumption, and financial situation of the section of the population. The first was measured via the Quality of Life (QoL) track of the section of the population, based on fulfilment of needs/requirements of energy in different forms: transport, housing, food, goods, and healthcare. The second was based on data on import, production and consumption of energy available on the website of LEKS, a collaboration between the county administrative boards in Sweden, and used tokens that each represented 100 GWh of energy. The third, keeping track of the population’s financial situation was a bunch of tokens in different colours and a ‘Savings’ track (first playtest; see my previous post) and a track with green and orange markers and some green tokens (second playtest). Based on this information, the population players were able to assess the situation for their section of the population and take that into account when negotiating with other players.

Detail from setup of two population boards showing how populations fulfil their needs/requirements for energy in the Transportation and Food categories. The number above each box indicates how much energy was needed to avoid negative effects (decreased QoL). For Playtest 1 (top), this meant putting the same number of tokens of the same type on the box; for Playtest 2 (bottom) one token was sufficient, but could only be put on the box if the population had an agreement with a supplier for the right amount of energy. In Playtest 1, agreements were represented with orange money tokens, whereas in Playtest 2 cards were used.
Cards given to population players on Playtests 1 (top) and 2 (bottom left and right). One effective way of making players aware of rules in megagames is placing them on cards that players have on them. The card used during Playtest 1 was often forgotten, likely due to it stating a negative general rule (cost of changing type of energy), and so for Playtest 2 it was combined with a positive once-per-turn rule to make it easier for players to remember using the card and thus reduce the need for Control to remind them of the rules.

Also, implementing the -1 QoL stated on the card in Playtest 1 was found to be difficult as players often were unsure on which number the marker stood at the start of the turn and so was unsure if it had changed, and so for Playtest often sad smiley token was invented to represent -1 QoL, making it easier for Control to make the necessary adjustments during the Resolve phase.

The effects of making changes in a rapid pace was a decreasing QoL, which during the Resolve phase resulted in the population receiving a number of red tokens (one for yellow, three for orange – no one ever reached red). More than two red tokens meant increased costs of making changes to the Transport and Housing categories on population board – more than five meant no changes could be made at all. This was an attempt to represent reactions to radical changes and make players think in terms of acceptance among the population. This was about to become a real problem after three turns in Playtest 1, where one population would have been unable to make any changes on Turn 4, had Turn 3 not been the end of the playtest. The only way to remove red tokens was to get QoL to green, which would have meant heavy investments, especially for the less wealthy section of the populations.

In playtest 1, the players used green tokens (poker chips) to keep track of recurring income, and when making deals with other players they gave (or received) green tokens the deal was then represented by an equal amount of orange tokens (white poker chips were used during the game) which were placed on top of the energy tokens they were used to pay for. This gave rise to a problem in terms how to represent money that was not recurring income, i.e. one-time spending such as savings or paying one-time costs stated on cards. This was solved in part by using blue tokens for savings, interest on savings and one-time grants given out by e.g. the government, but did not really solve the problem as players wanted to use their surplus green tokens for one-time costs as well. Thus, Playtest 2 used tracks for recurring incomes and expenditures, and the players received any surplus funds in green tokens (poker chips) that they were free to save or spend as they saw fit. Also, deals were kept track of using agreement cards, which existed in two copies, one for the seller and one for the buyer.

As for all the tokens on the population board, I’ll discuss them in coming posts, as well as the role of politician, which was held by some of the population players. In the next post, I’ll cover the companies, which all deal with energy in different forms.

Toying with ideas: creating a concept

In this post I’ll be going into some of the ideas that guide the game design process at this point. If some of them seem contradictory or very, very vague to you, that’s fine – the game is still in the concept stage, at which (at least to my mind) it’s quite alright to leave blanks to be filled in later. This work will eventually lead up to a prototype, which I’ll present to you in early 2023.

In the game, a number of players divided into teams will struggle to change the patterns of consumption of a population – for the moment we’ll assume that it’s the population of Sweden – to become more sustainable in terms of food, travel and furnishing. To their help they have various types of capital, e.g. economic, social, and cultural, that they can either use to gain advantages in the current system (following a ‘business as usual’ logic) or place on ‘enabler’ cards that may put the population on a slightly different path. The teams have different ideas of what ‘sustainability’ means and so do not necessarily agree on which enablers should be prioritised – or even realised at all. To top this off, events such as extreme weather and (inter)national crises and representatives of the powers of the outside world may influence their understanding of the enablers and what the future should look like.

First of all, we need to describe the current situation, i.e. the consumption patterns of the population around which the game revolves. The current concept is based on the assumption that at the start of the game, the production of raw materials and products is more sustainable in Sweden than abroad. This may well be debatable as a general statement, but as we’re constructing a game, simplifications of this kind are necessary. Thus, we need to show where raw materials are sourced and production takes place, and below is my current attempt at showing this in the game:

A section of the main game board, showing if the sourcing of raw materials for (tokens with people on) and production of (tokens with factories on) food (green), furnishings (blue), and travel (purple) is global (top half) or local (bottom half). Placement of tokens is random at the moment and will later be changed to better represent the situation in the real world. To the right, a track showing if the population eats more meat of more vegetables.

Here, a distinction has been made between sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing of products – this may later be changed, but at the moment seems to reflect the fact that although factories are built in Sweden, the sourcing of raw materials needs to be done elsewhere for various reasons and so affects the overall environmental/CO2 impact of the products consumed by the population. The idea behind this section of the board is to make it easy to check progress and realise whether the game is going the way players want it to in terms of where production takes place and – although this may take closer inspection – either the current level of consumption and/or efficiency of operations (indicated by the number of tokens), and degree of sustainability. In the case of the food category, the track showing to the balance between meat and vegetables on people’s plates has been added to show degree of sustainability as it is pretty much universally agreed that meat leaves a much larger CO2 footprint than vegetables.

Including a map allows for conflict s of geography and gives players a sense of where they are. In this map, orange tokens show that access to cars are a major concern in the north, whereas in the south other issues are prioritised. Red markers show riots caused by e.g. changes going too quickly or players ignoring the population’s priorities.

In my experience, most games benefit from including some kind of map, as it both gives players a sense of where the game takes place and allows for interesting conflicts based on geography, and so I decided to use a map of Sweden for the first version of the game. This immediately gave some ideas as to which issues are prioritised in different parts of the country, and so I put in some tokens to reflect the general idea that the sparsely populated north rely heavily on their cars to survive and the densely populated south rely on the north to provide them with energy, mainly electricity. Thus, any enablers that affect either availability of cars or electricity will meet with heavier resistance in some areas than others and e.g. a law banning fossil cars may cause riots (red tokens with a hand) in some areas unless players do something to ease tensions regarding this issue, e.g. pay out subsidies (economic capital) or appeal to the inhabitants emotions (social capital) or traditions (cultural capital).

Two types of cards. On the left is an ‘enabler’ card (a bonus-malus system to encourage travel by train instead of by air) adapted from the MISTRA Sustainable consumption game, showing its effects and resistance. On the right, a card showing how long-term investments of capital in an idea, in this case focus on the individual in society, provides benefits (one capital becomes two) but also ties down capital that cannot easily be released to be used in reshaping society.

Much of the game will revolve around negotiating with other players to put enabler cards into effect and so they will have to have a cost in capital that needs to be met. As players and teams will have different types of capital, they need to make deals with others to have them put in the right type of capital to activate the card. As we enter into a world that is already progressing (at full speed, some may argue), players won’t have a bunch of easily accessible capital to spend and instead will have most of it tied up in various projects and ideas. This is a way of representing society and bring to light the values that are embedded in people’s minds, such as a liberal market economy or – in the case of Sweden – Folkhemmet (the Swedish Welfare State). These may be very difficult to represent correctly, but play a very important role: they tie up capital in a way that provides players and teams with benefits (e.g. making one capital into two), which will have players think twice about e.g. shifting to a local economy based on small farming collectives in a single round – they may do so if they all set their minds to it (and many of the players will be against this), but the cost to all players will be very, very high as the population has a very different idea of what the future is going to look like and (unless faced with an extreme situation) will normally change their view on what’s a reasonable future very slowly, which in game terms involves spending large numbers of capital of various types over a number of turns. Here, ‘cost’ means decreasing the general state of mind of the entire population as represented by a track from 1–9 on the lower right on the game board – the lower it is, the more difficult will it be to implement enabler cards.

The concept I’ve outlined here is a long way away from playable a prototype, even if I’ve done some work on tokens and boards to help explaining my thoughts to myself and my team. As you may have noticed, I’ve not mentioned which players will be included and what their roles will be – the media was suggested as a group of players earlier this week, and I think it was a great idea so I added them above. In my next blog post, I’ll briefly discuss a slim version of this game that I constructed for a one-hour event that one of my project members held in mid-November, and which formed the basis for a workshop we held in late November.

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