On February 15 2023 the village of Åkervalla opened up for the very first group to attempt to achieve sustainable consumption. The following are some reflections from the first playtest, with some ideas about what direction the development of the game will take.

The first decision to make is always whether the concept worked or if I need to return to the drawing board to create a new one that better fits the bill. In this case, what we were looking to do was involve the players in a megagame experience that allowed them to meet and work with the enablers from the MISTRA project.

Some players tried their best to beat the game using the rules, some were confused and frustrated by the mechanics (and the format in itself), and some decided to circumvent the rules and make up their own story. The enabler cards were used by some both as they were intended and as inspiration to other actions, while others looked at them with a perplexed expression and went on to play the game using only the basic game mechanics. From this I conclude that we managed to present the players with an megagame-format experience, and that this experience both inspired to creativity and showed some of the complexity of the real world. Thus, I’ve decided that we’ll keep the concept of Åkervalla and further develop the current version of the game for further playtesting, primarily focusing on integrating the enablers into the game.

Before going on to analyse the outcome of the playtest, I’ll briefly discuss the core of the game as development of it was concluded only days before the playtest (as is traditional in megagame creation, I’ve been told). Overall, the game consists of three types of teams: producers (farm, factory, farming collective, climbing centre, B&B, recycling centre), retailers (food store, restaurant, furniture store, travel agency, B&B, gas station, second hand store), and free agents (local politician, influencer, sales team, researchers). They are involved in the game in different ways, and Figure 1 shows the game from a game mechanics point of view.

Figure 1: Overview of the game from a mechanics perspective. The enabler cards affected all aspects of the game, political decisions most of the game, influencers and sales team only consumers. Businesses try to satisfy the consumers’ demands – the rest is sourced from Eslöv/the rest of the world. The enabler cards are to be the linchpin of the game, but in the current version can actually be omitted, as game mechanics do not rely on them – they are thus more of an inspiration that the players are free to use or ignore until external forces (extreme weather, government bills, market shortages) compel them to take action.

The current version of the game would work without the enabler cards had it not been for outside influences, such as extreme weather or market fluctuations – thus, the next iteration of the game will need a clearly defined scenario handling system that allow control to impose changes on the game world that compels players to consider the enabler cards they have on hand. The lack of a clearly defined system to link news reports of e.g. extreme weather or trade wars to impose noticeable changes in the game in terms of mechanics that is also manageable for the control team was evident in this first playtest.

Figure 2: Two customer cards. Each of the 20 families in Åkervalla had three cards to represent their need for food (purple), furnishings (blue), and vacation (beige). The family’s purchasing power was stated on each card (using an erasable pen, so as to be able to change over the course of the game) as a number of € signs (€, €€, or €€€). The consumption preferences of the family was stated on the card by putting the numbers 1–4 in the coloured boxes (also in erasable pen) and their personality was printed on the card as a special ability (e.g. the Åkertofts are ‘Impatient: considers only Products 1–3 and purchases the first to fit Preference 1 or 2’). Each colour represented a different type of product – for the food category, these were unsustainable (grey), ecological (orange), vegetarian (yellow), and vegan (green). The preferences can be changed by enabler cards or the influencer during the game, but mostly only one step at a time, so very few customers go from grey to green in the first round.
Figure 3: One of the businesses, the local B&B, with products and customers. The ability of the business to receive customers is shown by the six coloured squares, under each of which there is a space labelled ‘customer’ on which exactly one customer card can be placed if the colour of the square matches that of the card (notice that the B&B sells both vacation and food). A customer card will only be placed on the customer space, however, if there is a product on the square and the colour and number of € signs of the product matches the preferences stated on the customer card, including the personality rule of the customer. The customer cards placed below the customer spaces are the regulars/potential customers – more can be gained by hiring the sales team or the influencer, but they can also be snatched away by them. Should a customer card fail to be placed – in this example, by the B&B changing from green (vegan; the Pacheco family’s Preference 1) food to ecological (orange; the Pacheco family’s Preference 4) or the price of the B&B’s food go up by to €€ or €€€ (the Pacheco family card only has € on it) – it is placed on the ‘went to Eslöv’ table and will have to be brought back from there by the sales team or the influencer.

The game mechanics gave some of the players a headache for the first round (we played four rounds over the course of the day), and some said they still hadn’t worked out how to make sense of their own table at the conclusion of the game. I noticed that the resolve phase was quite control-dependant due to the requirement on shuffling and placing customers according to their preferences and special abilities – it may be too much of a board game mechanic to make it to the next version, and I’ve decided to go over the mechanics of each table to see where I can cut down on complexity. The game isn’t overly complex, but bearing in mind that it will be almost exclusively played with inexperienced groups of players I will attempt to simplify things to increase accessibility.

Figure 4: Two enabler cards. The colour of enabler cards matched their area of use, so that purple enabler cards could only be used with furnishings products and customer cards. The card on the left, ‘Climate customs’, was a political card that required the local politician to push it through with the authorities in Eslöv, and resulted in the prices of all grey (unsustainable/new) furnishings to go up by € (a token was placed on each blue token on the players’ tables) and one of the companies gaining two new customers. The card on the right, Nudging, let the player permanently change the preference on one customer card on their table; more specifically, the player could  increase the preference for sustainable (orange) products by one (e.g. from 3 to 2), and thus pushing another product type further down on the customer’s list, making it less likely that that customer would buy it in the future, thus making allowing the business to sell more sustainable types of products.

The enabler cards are to be at the centre of the game experience, but in this game most were not used and were left lying around in heaps on the tables. I believe there were two reasons for this: the first was that the players’ knowledge of the game mechanics wasn’t deep enough for them to understand and decide if the enabler cards were good for them or not, and in which way they would benefit them and other players. The second, and possibly more important, one was that they simply weren’t relevant enough to the challenge the players faced: they were struggling to get customers to change preferences, but the fact that there were over 60 customer cards, most of which preferred grey goods at the start of the game, combined with the limited amount of enabler cards changing even one customer’s preferences (and then only by one step each turn) made this task overwhelmingly difficult.

There are several ways in which this may be dealt with, but I believe it’s important to consider what the players learned from facing this challenge, which may be very real in an era of information overload and immunity to information campaigns. The enabler cards need to be worked into the game in a better way, but possibly the difficulty of changing people’s preferences should remain, and factors from outside of Åkervalla (wars, effects of natural catastrophes) be allowed to change many customers’ preferences at once, but only after some part of the world has been lost. This ties into the game’s learning goals, and how the discussion afterwards is structured, and so will have to be discussed with the entire team.

As for the role playing part, the role descriptions and goals didn’t seem to present the players with any problems; some asked a clarifying questions or two, but most of them just read it and then went on to try to understand the game. One or two of the players went into character – one by loudly stating that they would leave ‘cold and wet Åkervalla’ behind and move to Portugal as soon as possible (their goal was to accumulate 10 money at the end of the game). The descriptions involved quite a lot of ‘village intrigue’ intended to give some flavour and incentise players to go talk to other players, but as there was about as much movement between tables as in other games I’ve played, it’s unclear if this made any difference. The goals stated things to achieve in terms of game mechanics (have x money at the end of the game, sell all six goods in the final round, get re-elected, etc.) and several of the players referred to them both during and after the game, so it seems they were important to some players and less so to others.

And the criminal empire? Before turn one had even started, two entrepreneurial players came up to me and asked: ‘Can we sell drugs?’. My answer was obviously ‘Of course! There’s a risk of getting caught, though…’. They were called out on Turn 2, but as no one made a serious attempt at stopping them, there was a drug business running from one of the tables throughout the game. They managed to get hold of so much money that in the end, the criminal empire funded not only the local politician but a substantial part of Åkervalla’s change to sustainable consumption. Anything can happen in these games – partly thanks to the ‘Yes, and…’ philosophy!

In all, this playtest went about as good as could have been expected, and gave quite a lot of things to consider for me and my team. The next post is likely to discuss the learning outcome (players answered a survey after the game) and which course corrections are required to reach our destination: better discussions about sustainable consumption.