Author: Magnus Persson Page 1 of 3

The workings of a society undergoing change: An intricate dance

What became apparent in Wageningen was that we were onto something with this design, which centred on poker chips in different colours representing food, furnishings, and vacation and population teams assessing the well-being of their part of the population by comparing the piles of chips they had managed to get hold of during the round both to how they did last turn and also to the piles of the other teams. The conference participants were enthusiastically participating in what I later came to describe as an “intricate dance” in which population teams sold their workforce to companies and regional authorities (who turned it into products and service – and ultimately profit), and bought products from the same companies on the local market and received service in the form of police, healthcare, and education cards from the regional authorities teams. The economy was very much like a fishtank, meaning that financial decisions made by the players affected the whole system – and the interface with the outside world was almost exclusively the map and the world market, which very few players were interacting with, but through which the system in the fishtank was very much affected.

This first version underwent an overhaul a few weeks before we were scheduled to run a playtest in Västerås. The reason for this late change was that I realised something very important about the structure of the game: I had structured it for two-player teams that together would go through the entire sequence of actions in a single round, e.g. population teams would find employment (sell workforce chips) during Phase I, then go do some politics in Phase II, and lastly buy product chips in Phase III. The advantage with this structure was that teams stayed together, discussing every decision, and that teams could vary in size (even down to a single player) without any serious consequences.

After running a Watch the Skies game in January 2024 I realised that the way the game was structured didn’t take advantage of the megagame structure in which several different subgames are played at once, with teams sending players to all or some of them simultaneously. I set out restructuring the game so that teams would consist of three players, each of which would go to one of five subgames: the labour market, the local market, the national assembly, the international market, and the production table/map. Population team players would go the first three, company team players to the local market and the last two, and regional authorities team players only to the last two. The implications for the game involved the effects of actions being delayed (increasing the price of imported goods on the international market on Turn 1 would cause prices to increase on the local market on Turn 2) and also that players would have to use their team time to discuss strategy, but would have to act on behalf of their team during the subgame, having to explain their actions and decisions to the rest of the team afterwards. My thinking was that this would make for a more interesting game experience and also involve some dynamics that exists in real life – and discussing my idea with people confirmed that they too saw this potential.

Above is a rough schematic of the flow of workforce (blue), food/goods/vacation/raw materials (black), public services (purple) and money (green) in the game. It was after I made this that I realised that what had been created here was an ‘intricate dance’, seeing as workforce, goods, and money needed to flow smoothly in order for the whole thing not to come crashing down. It did not do so during the three turns of the Västerås playtest, even though we had a shortage of players (two regions and one company were not played), and it remains to be seen if it will do so when played again with a full set of players.

I learned from this playtest was that the game is currently difficult to grasp as a first-time player, which may have caused things to go better in the game than they should have: it may be that players simply did not understand what they were supposed to do and so reused tokens that were supposed to have been thrown away. The two-page player briefings gave a step-by-step description of the game round, but that did not seem to have been picked up by the players, many of whom mentioned afterwards that they would have required step-by-step instructions, preferably in the form of an online instruction video, to understand what they were supposed to do. As we were playing with upper secondary pupils with no particular gaming experience (real-life or digital), this setup needs to be tested with older players to confirm if the game is currently too complex to be playable.

What I realised from this playtest was that what I had done was create subgames that acted as interfaces in different ways: the local and labour markets and the national assembly were formalised arenas for negotiation between players, the production table (and the resource aspects of the map) a ‘game mechanics handling area’, which is to say an interface with game mechanics, and the international market (and the strategic aspects of the map) map an interface with the scenario. The players could have handled all negotiations either at a flag saying “market” and  mechanics by going to control and exchanging workforce and resources for chips, but formalising them made for simpler, more easily described actions for the players to perform, possibly representative of the structures in place in society that keep it relatively stable and predictable despite the myriad interactions between individuals taking place every second.

Based on this understanding of the structure of the game, I have come to consider a different take to the whole idea behind the game, which is to communicate the research results of the MISTRA Sustainable Consumption project. The current game illustrates (and quite elegantly so, if I may say so myself) the complexities of society and the structures that people have put in place to support it: the marketplaces, the assemblies, and the places of production, all of which are represented in terms of subgames. If we wanted to communicate just that, this setup would have been ideal – however, as we set out to communicate around the three focus areas of the project, i.e. how to sustainably consume food, furnishings, and vacation, I’m currently considering if there should be subgames for those three areas, along with perhaps production and political subgames, which focused on the effects of the list of enablers for sustainable consumption that has been proposed by the MISTRA project in much simpler terms. I will pursue this idea in the months to come, alongside developing and testing the version played in Västerås, which shows quite a lot of promise as a game.

Feedback on the game concept: What a concept drawing is good for

After presenting the game concept I wrote about in my previous post to my project group yesterday, we had a very rewarding discussion which resulted in two things: their questions helped clarify (both to them and me) what the different parts of the game are meant to do, and their thoughts helped me gain a clearer picture of what kind of content I’m going to create and put into the subgames over the next two weeks.

As for the first part, it is hugely helpful to have people ask questions to understand the game concept drawing – and in this context, I’d like to add that even sentences that are at first not overtly recognisable as questions related to the game content are in fact just that: when someone is tyring to understand your game, they are often thinking very hard while at the same time trying to align their world view and the ideas about the project that they have established in their own minds with what they are seeing in front of them, which means that whatever the way they word it, they are in fact asking ‘how does this fit it with what I think I know?’, and this is the question I as a game designer try to answer. I find attempting to adopt this frame of mind very helpful to facilitate a productive feedback session that results in ideas for how to proceed rather than frustration about people not getting your point or trying to warp the game into something you think it can never become – at this point, the game barely has any outlines, so there’s not really any ‘forts to defend’ so to speak, so listening and answering the questions behind the statements is more productive.

As you can see in the image above, I made some changes to the concept drawing already at the meeting. This was due to the reaction to the word ‘Activist’, the discussion of which became so heated that it almost took over the entire feedback session, so I changed it to something that was less of an obstruction to the minds of the group. Also, based on the feedback I moved the Nature subgame from behind a screen and out in the open, instead placing the Nature team behind it to take their actions in secret, leaving the other players to wonder what they are all about during the first rounds, when the Nature players will be limited to saying one or a few words when communicating with other players, in addition to taking special actions at the subgames.

One piece of feedback regarding the idea that the Nature table will contain symbols that are intelligible to most players was that we today understand most things about nature, so there really are no secrets that only Nature players know: humans are largely aware of all the averse effects of their actions. After discussing it some more, we decided that although all the symbols may be known, the connections between them aren’t, meaning that the scientists (and some of the foresters) know what the symbols underneath the resource cards mean, but the exact effects of cutting down a forest area and converting a wetland area into farmland is not – that’s the game effect that the Nature players represent, i.e. the connections between actions and consequences. This will be explored in the game design process when I construct the Nature subgame.

The possibility of scientists interacting with Nature players to learn more about how things are connected was mentioned, and also that the work of researchers could quite literally be represented a puzzle. The role of the University/researchers/scientists in this particular game will have to be explored – it was included as I know from experience that the first things players do is ask if they can research new things, but just how this will work in the game is not yet clear, and it is entirely possible that research could be made into a mechanic instead of a table if it fits better with the narrative. At one point it was suggested that scientists play Nature, but that was later dropped, which shows just how unclear the role is at present – there is also the question if NGOs should have one or more tables in the game, or if they should replace the university as the knowledge-gathering/R&D aspect of the game.

One topic that was raised several times was how the issues between urban and rural areas/populations are expressed and dealt with during the game, and it was concluded that this will be dealt with in the subgames. At the resource supply/production table, the question of where resources should be sourced from may be one of those conflict areas: where to place wind power and nuclear plants, whether to use forest for production or recreation, how to develop businesses that are based in rural areas, etc. This is the part of the game where we will add most content after we have had interviews with stakeholders, and so the first playtests will mostly test various game mechanics to find out which work best.

Another aspect of the game that was raised was that of sustainability. My initial thoughts after listening in to the discussion is that economic sustainability is handled in the Resource supply and Consumer subgames, ecological/biological sustainability in the Resource supply and Nature subgames, and social sustainability in the Consumer and Politics subgames. What is considered to be sustainable remains to be discussed, and perhaps this is one thing that the game is about: negotiating a balance between the three instead of staring fixedly at economic sustainability and hoping technology will handle the rest? There is also the question of how to make visible how perspectives on sustainability vary between regions and urban/rural areas, which is particularly interesting in this project, and which I will keep in mind when I go to work on creating the first prototype of the game.

Game concept: Nature behind a screen

After a very rewarding round of feedback from my colleagues in the project and a refreshing run of Watch the Skies by the East Sweden Megagames network, it was less of a challenge to put together a draft of what may become the skeleton of the Melting the Polarization (MtP) megagame. In this post, I’ll outline my thoughts and try to connect it to the feedback I got on my last post, in the hopes of contributing to the discussion of the game concept that will take place tomorrow.

What you see above is a (very confusing) concept drawing of a megagame, and in the following I’ll try to explain it a little bit. There are four types of tables, each with a different colour in the drawing above: one table each for the Government, Activists, and the University, and multiple Region tables (as many as are needed to accommodate the number of players, but likely no more than ten).

There are four players belonging to each table, which have different roles but form a team that play together and attempt to achieve certain goals; what these goals are vary between tables. The players begin the turn at their table by planning what each player should do during the Action phase, and then leave their table to go to other tables (called subgames above), where they perform actions to the best of their ability and also negotiate with other players, after which they return to their table to sum up the round’s activities.

In the illustration above, the places where the Region tables’ (there are several) go during the Action phase. The Businessman goes to the Resource supply table, carrying with them any cards (money, workforce, etc.) that they can use to produce and purchase resources (food, consumer goods, export goods, etc.) that the people in the country need to thrive. The Consumer goes to the Consumer table and try to purchase the things that come from the Resource supply table and which the region’s population need to survive and increase their wellbeing. The Politician goes to the Politics table, where they together with the politicians from other tables decide on a budget for the Government and make new laws that affect all other tables. The Forester goes to the Nature table, which is behind a screen, and manages the region’s natural resources (mostly forest and fields, but there are some mines to the north).

There are four subgames: Resource supply, Consumers, Politics, and Nature. Above, you can see which players are at the Nature and Politics tables during the Action phase – in essence, players from all tables are present at all tables (except for the Nature table, where there is no Government minister present), but in varying numbers; the Region players (Businessmen, Consumers, Politicians, and Foresters) are in majority at all tables. The Government, Activists, and University teams may decide to send multiple players to one table and none to others, depending on their assessment of what is required to reach their goals.

The Nature table is the most baffling to most players: it consists of a large map with cards (forest, grain, ore, etc) placed on top of it, and under each card there is one or more symbols, which mean very little to most of the players (researchers can research them, of course, but that takes time). The only ones that understand them all, but are not allowed to say so, are the activists – they are in fact playing Nature, secretly sending swarms of insects to destroy fields of grain and tearing through the monoculture forests based on which cards the Forester players take away from the Nature table to use in production and trade. The Nature team is posing as activists at the start of the game and their goal is to understand what is driving the humans to tear everything down in their search for happiness through the possession of more worldly possessions – much like the aliens in Watch the Skies are trying to understand and communicate with humans from behind their screen – but after a few turns they will be able to reveal their identity and negotiations between Nature and all other tables will be held openly. Interesting and a bit scary to negotiate with someone who can release a tornado or an Ice Age if you won’t agree to their terms, won’t you say?

In the game, players begin by facing the reality of trying to stay alive and thrive in their regions while negotiating the impact this has on the world around them. The scenario starts with a round of everything going according to plan, i.e. business gets their supply of the things people need, consumers gets what they require (and a little extra to make them happy), and politics establish a plan forward. On round two, a shortage of energy (likely oil, but could be something else) will impact the country, sending players far and wide in search of a new means of supporting their system – and they will likely end up trying to make up for it by taking cards from the Nature table, to which Nature will reply harshly. After this, the Nature team will step forward, and there will be a couple of rounds where humans and Nature try to work things out, and the game ends in whatever crisis will be the result of their efforts – it’s very unlikely that they will find a plausible way that suits everyone right off the bat, but there some progress wil likely be made and some people may have to change their roles to accommodate the new world order.

The idea here is for players to journey from their reality to an awareness of nature as a partner that we need to take seriously when negotiating what our future should look like and in so doing begin to see the world around us as a whole, not only the parts not behind the screen. The choice of issues that players will face (the scenario) can change, but the energy one is perhaps most pressing – around 80% of all energy used in Sweden today is fossil, and although most people are all for replacing it, the issue of what to replace it with and what the world will look like once we have is a huge challenge that it may be argued we haven’t even begun addressing seriously yet.

Initial thoughts about what the game will be about

At the start of a new project, the most pressing question for me as a game designer is ‘what is this game going to be about?’ and after a two-day mini-conference with my project group in lovely Växjö I’m looking forward to getting to grips with this question. In this post I will deal with what I heard people express during the meeting and what this has led me to think the game is going to be about – the next step in the process will be to create what I refer to as a ‘concept outline’, which I will present to my project group to give them something to base their discussions and research on as the project moves forward.

The brief answer to the question what I think the game is going to be about is ‘how the resources of an area is used to meet the demands/needs of both the world outside of it and of the people living in the area’. In the discussions I took part in, it was assumed that the scene for this megagame would be located in a region in Sweden (likely because we have done so in other games, most notably Switching the Current), and in connection to this three contexts or spheres were mentioned: the city, the countryside, and nature. The conflicts of interest that were mentioned – forest management, placement of wind power plants, food supply, meat production/consumption, transportation, demography, growth, biodiversity, the existence of wolf packs in the area – were all considered in the context of different groups within spheres having different views on the importance and role of these in the greater whole (a sustainable future, presumably).

The first thing I try to figure out when beginning a new megagame about societal change is whether the megagame will be played on the global scale (players play the world powers, i.e. at the top of the food chain and thus have the power to decide what local and regional actors do to prevent and handle the effects of events such as climate change and loss of biodiversity) or the local scale (players play local or regional actors that implement instructions from above and react to and mitigate events as best they can, but are not assumed to be affect anything outside of the region). The difference may seem to be very small, but affects the role e.g. the climate scenario plays in the game – in the local scale, events are filtered through the actions of fictional governments and supernational organisations such as the EU, which adds a layer of complexity both in the game design and the players’ interpretation of what level of agency they have in the game, i.e. are they free to do as they please or do they need to make sure their actions will not conflict with the agenda of e.g. a fictional, Control-governed national assembly?

In this case, I’m assuming that we’re going to play on the local scale, meaning that we will create a fictional region in which players take on the role of local groups such as city dwellers, farmers, local companies (and local branches of multinational companies), and various aspects of nature, e.g. a river or a forest. The latter is an interesting concept that was tried out by students of the megagame-making course held at Linköping University in Spring 2023, which made for an interesting game experience – instead of representing the effects of e.g. cutting down trees using game mechanics such as ominous red tokens or cards with menacing names such as ‘Death of a forest’, the forest-cutting player would be faced with a member of the Nature team asking them whether they would rather suffer a severe drought or a forest fire, with the added threat of something far worse happening should they not be amenable to the demands of the Nature team (e.g. no more forest cut down east of a particular river).

It may well be that my assumption is wrong and that the game will have a hierarchical structure akin to that in Urban Nightmare – State of Chaos, where players play the chain of command from Governor all the way down to police officers on the zombie-ridden streets. The design decision here is whether to aim for width or height – trying to do both, i.e. both play many different actors in a region and also the chain of command all the way up to the EU level may result in a game that’s uncontrollably large and impossibly difficult to scale to two-figure player numbers. This remains to be seem, however, and it is one thing I’m expecting to receive feedback on when I present my concept outline to the project team in two weeks time.

Hitting the wall: influence on the game and player agency

Don’t all players need to have a positive experience during the game for them to learn anything? This question was brought to light by the fate of the low-income population players during the Borlänge playtest (see previous blog post). The players on that team had expected to play a game about ‘the energy system’, and were unprepared for the task of handling the transition to sustainable energy consumption of an entire section of the population while dealing with severe shortages in e.g. healthcare and education and energy for heating their houses to a comfortable 22°C. They worked together with the Director of Healthcare & Education to get new hospitals and had very promising plans for lifestyle changes and decentralised living when disaster struck in the form of a wave of unrest and then the rise of organised crime. In the end, they concluded that they were unable to do anything about the situation as they had insufficient funds (low income and high expenses), and that the game had left them with their hands tied.

The players were already looking pretty tired when they on Turn 4 had to handle a wave of vandalism and extorsion instigated by their own disgruntled citizens after 15 years of rising dissent due to what they interpreted as their community leaders’ (the players on the team) inability to improve their living conditions. The proverbial hair that broke the camel’s back came the following turn, when they after celebrating that they had managed to improve their Quality of Life to an acceptable level were given the news that 100,000 immigrant workers had joined their population – this required them to obtain even more resources in order not to cause a new wave of dissent and further aggravate the situation with the crime wave. All the players at the table left the game shortly after this – not owing to being frustrated, but to previous engagements – and so was unable to attend the debriefing session. I spoke to them just before they left and they said they ‘hadn’t done anything even remotely related to the energy system all day long’.   

A very natural reaction to this that something must be wrong with the game or the setup, as the experience of a player needs to be positive and empowering in order for learning to take place. In answer to this, I give you two reflections I’ve made during my time as a megagame designer (a few years, which is arguably a relatively short time):

The first is that it is my experience that people learn from experiences that affect them on an emotional level. In this case, the players were frustrated and so the game had affected them – the question is only what they would learn. Here, a game host needs to plan carefully in order to maximise chances that players learn something that will be beneficial to the intended learning outcomes, i.e. the reason we host the game and invite the players to participate in the first place. As the players had to leave early and so missed the debriefing session, our opportunity as game hosts of having them reflect on what the (frustrating) events of the game meant in terms of a sustainable energy system (where in my view they had gained very important insights into how the need for energy affected those who didn’t have the resources to obtain it) was lost, as was our opportunity to use their experiences and frustration to help the other players (some of which were very pleased with attaining their goals without too much trouble) reflect on their own success against the backdrop of the rather grim fate of the low-income population. In light of this, an assumption such as that for learning to take place all players should have the same ability to influence and, by extension, succeed in the game is only valid if one also assumes that all players either won’t process their experience or will only do so on their own, i.e. the kind of processing you would expect from people who have played a single-player computer game.

My second reflection is that megagames by nature are hierarchical, as often some teams give orders to others and some players lead their teams, and thus all players do not have equal influence on every part of the game. That said, all players should have the same amount of agency in the game: this means that all players should enjoy the same freedom to go outside the rules and invent methods of influencing the game via the role-playing part of the megagame handled by negotiating with members of the Control team (who will mostly give them a ‘yes, and…’ kind of answer and have them roll dice to determine the cost and level of success). As an example, take the group of players inventing a criminal empire on Turn 1 of the playtest of the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame (see this blog post): their creativity impacted the game quite a lot (they more or less bought the local politician on the last turn), and none of this came from their role descriptions or any rules relating to the table they played. In a megagame, we thus need to be clear about the difference between agency of the player (equal) and the influence of the player’s role (limited by/tied to their place in a hierarchy).

What these two reflections amount to in the case of the fate of the low-income population in the Borlänge playtest, I will present you with my reasoning as the member of the Control team reacting to what was happening in the game: I my view, the players started out trying to ‘win the game’ by playing by the rules as best they could (they were, as most of the people we play with, first-time players), which enabled the inequality inherent in their roles to gain full momentum, pushing them very quickly down a slippery slope which was present in the game setup. As in real life, however, at the bottom of that slope wasn’t the end of the game but new options – at the cost of the players accepting a change to the way they played game, in this case the players being given means to incentivise other players to share resources that they hadn’t offered freely earlier in the game and/or incentivise the players of the low-income population team to sacrifice their pride/abandon their unwillingness to ask for alms. This is my understanding of how agency works in megagames – when a player’s role hits a wall, the player is free to explore options not covered by the original mechanics of the role (which surprisingly often involves choices which are doubtful from a moral perspective), and as a member of the Control team I’m obliged (and free) to assist in players who are at a loss for what to do with options that I can see based on my understanding of the game.

As for the game and the hosting of game events, it’s my belief that achieving a positive learning outcome after playing the game is entirely dependent on the players reflecting on the game experience together in groups, sharing their experiences so as to form a whole that isn’t limited to an individual player’s experiences. This processing of what has happened in during the game can take the form of structured debriefing sessions or gathering over a pint at the pub afterwards – however it is done, it is crucial that players are made aware (before the game, and reminded afterwards) that whatever they experience during the game, it is of the utmost importance that they give themselves time to process the experience and make sense of it together with other players. Ultimately, what I want for participants in our games is to form as many mental links between the game experience and their aggregated life experience as they can. Otherwise, all we have is a game that is entirely unrelated to reality, and thus more or less useless in helping people who play them see the world in a new way.

The scenario: why even play a game where everything goes according to plan?

Since before the second playtest of Switching the Current, we’ve discussed the need for the game having a backdrop, or a scenario, which lets Control know which global effects are to be played when. This may sound suspiciously like directing the game and tailoring the ending of the game, but it’s not as nefarious as that: we simply want the players’ individual actions to be aggregated to the global level and – like a car trying to stay on a slippery road while driving at top speed – decide which of three different (more or less undesirable) scenarios will emerge during the game. Thus, Control won’t decide, but the actions of the players; the importance of this is that players will be told during the debriefing that the potential future they encountered during the last round was one of their own making, and have them reflect on this.

First, let’s have a look at the three scenarios: the first sees corporate interests overpower those of politics and democracy, the second gives rise to a state apparatus so strong as to all but erase all interests that do not belong to the collective, and the third involves the decentralisation of society into self-sustaining units so small as to make global markets and nation-states all but powerless. As you can imagine, these all come with their own problems, and neither are the one that players are aiming for as they start the game: a world in which technology and social advancements assist in creating a sustainable society in which energy-saving go hand in hand with social equality and a (sustainably) high quality of life. We’ve based these four scenarios loosely on the Swedish Energy Agency’s ‘Four Futures’ report: Forte leading to a corporate-controlled future, Legato to a strong (and somewhat repressive) state, Espressivo to the decentralisation of society, and Vivace to a perfect, technology-driven balance act (which is too good to be true).

The last scenario is the only unattainable one – simply because if players achieved it by the end of the game, they would likely assume this was the path the world is already on, and reflect no further. Also, it would ruin the replayability of the game – who would spend another full day playing a game that they ended up winning the first time they played it? Also, wouldn’t that mean to most people that the game was rigged, and thus not relevant to real-world problems? Our view on this is that only by having players striving to achieve a good, sustainable future and instead ending up with something that doesn’t sit quite right with them (or originate from their worst nightmares) despite them having tried their best to stay on course and realising all their favourite pet projects in the garden of hundreds of thousands of homes, they will take the lesson to heart and consider the implications of their actions and desires being implemented on a regional scale.

So far, the game experience has been overpowering for the Control team – so much so that the effects on the game of the scenario has been almost non-existent, aside from the world market reacting to military conflicts and trade wars, causing minor difficulties to players. In coming playtests, this side of the game will be developed in order to change the conditions in the game so much as to have players stop and reconsider what they are doing: much like the covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine has affected Swedish society. This will involve clearly defined game effects, including changes in market prices, shortages, and extreme weather striking blows to food production, among other things. These effects will be laid out and studied by Control beforehand, so that they can be swiftly and effectively implemented once the results of player actions (project cards played, lifestyle choices made by the population, political decisions made) come in during the resolution phase.

This is one way in which the players’ actions will be visible in the game and thus fuel the discussion during the debriefing session after the game. However, what happens if some players have to leave early and are unable to discuss their experience with the other players, especially if they have had a very frustrating task during the game (see previous blog post)? This is what the next blog post is about, and there I will also discuss player agency.

Localising the game: reframing the question (and unwittingly inventing organised crime)

The team and I were excited to be invited to play Switching the Current in Borlänge, and as part of the preparations for this event we localised the game to the county of Dalarna, which lies far north of Östergötland, the setting of the first version of the game (as was the Climate Change Megagame). The major differences between the two counties are the population size (500,000 in Östergötland compared to 300,000 in Dalarna), natural resources (Östergötland has vast areas of farmland and some forests, whereas Dalarna is mostly made up of dense forests), and – last but not least – energy production (Östergötland has very little, whereas Dalarna produce 3100 GWh worth of hydropower annually). When beginning the redesign based on an energy system chart from 2020 (Fig. 1), I asked my if it would be possible to use the same setup in terms of tables and other game mechanics for Dalarna as the game had been built with Östergötland in mind.

Figure 1. Translation of energy system chart into game mechanics. The first step of the localisation process was to translate the figures on the energy system chart into 100 GWh tokens, each of which would belong to a table. The greatest challenge was where to place the hydropower – in the end it ended up with Conglomo (see Figs. 3 and 4).
Figure 2. The energy system tokens were then distributed between the population, local administration, and regional industries tables. Various adjustments were then made to the population tables to account for the fact that the population of Dalarna is only 60% of that of Östergötland, and also that the energy consumptions of the two counties differed quite a lot, particularly in terms of the local administration (which gave rise to the health care crisis for the low-income population table discussed in the next blog post).
Figure 3. Energy production sections of the energy distribution company Conglomo in the Östergötland (top) and Dalarna (bottom) versions of the game. In Östergötland, almost of all power is purchased from the market (five 10-value yellow cards with a pylon symbol and no border – all tokens with borders are produced by other tables in the game, i.e. locally), whereas in Dalarna, more than half the energy is produced locally (cards/tokens with orange borders are Conglomo’s own, the one with brown is produced by district heating company Elementa).

On the whole, using a different energy system chart did not present too much of a problem, after the matter of whether to create a separate company for the production of hydro- and wind power was settled – I placed all power production with Conglomo, making the company considerably less dependent on the market, but also subject to paying for maintaining the dams and wind power plants. A minor snag was that the district heating company Elementa, which was a major player in the Östergötland version, barely scraped by in the Dalarna version. Despite this, the fairly easy translation process gave hope that it would be possible – and even interesting – to do the same for other areas of Sweden (and abroad) in order to both make it easier for players to recognise problems/potentials in their home area and identify differences and similarities between games set in different areas.

Figure 4. Map of the county of Dalarna overlaid with hexagons. This map was used to show ownership of land, where the different parts of the population live/exert influence, placement of power production plants, forestry practices, etc. This map didn’t see much use during the playtest in Borlänge, and further development will be needed as conflicts relating to land use, extraction of natural resources, and placement of power plants are considered to be central to handle in the game.

The relative ease with which the game could be localised to a different geographic area pointed to aspects of the game that has yet not seen much development: social aspects, land use, and area-specific conflicts. As for the first aspect, the game does not take into consideration that the populations of the two regions are likely to be very different in terms of outlook on life, history, and social stratification. Instead, it is assumed that the population of Dalarna is for the most part going to react similarly to situations such as power shortages, social injustices, etc. I unwittingly performed an experiment as regards this when I set the Quality of Life to 10 (half of the other populations) and in 15 years’ time caused social upheaval that resulted in vandalism of the houses of the richest part of the population and the rise of organised crime among the low-income population (Fig. 5).

Figure 5. Starting position for the low-income population team. Due to shortages in the Transport, Housing, and Health & Education categories (boxes on which there are no tokens), their Quality of Life (QoL; bottom-left track) started out at 10. This meant that they would get two Dissent tokens (red circles placed from left to right on the bottom-right track) per turn, unless something was done to improve their situation, e.g. more healthcare and education provided by the Local Administration team (or someone else – giving charity on a large scale is a possibility), energy provided to fill in the empty boxes on the Vacation and 22°C (indoor temperature) sections on the Transport or Housing boards, respectively, or project cards realized to allow the empty boxes to be filled with Life Style Change tokens, meaning that the population would come to terms with their situation and thus prevent loss of QoL. Although attempts were made to handle this situation, however, nothing was accomplished by the end of Turn 3, and there was one more Dissent token than spaces on the track, meaning that frustration among the population gave rise to a wave of vandalism (damage to buildings represented by maintenance tokens being distributed on buildings – most notably on the Regional Council building, closing it down for the round and forcing the Mayor and politicians to meet elsewhere in the room). The Dissent track being full meant that no changes could be made, so the players were given the option of purging them by placing additional maintenance tokens on buildings around the room – this led to a situation in which the richest population paid a considerable amount of money not to have their homes vandalised (and where ultimately deceived as they still were). On the next turn, the low-income population players realised that they had a problem with organised crime, but their situation had improved considerably due to efforts made by the Local Administration and concerned rich and middle-income population players.

As for land use, and more specifically forestry, one would possibly have expected it to be more prominent in a game set in a densely forested area. This didn’t play into the game at all, which was surprising but also problematic, seeing as many of the strategies proposed involve using (or leaving well alone) the forests of areas such as Dalarna. This will have to be addressed in the next iteration of the game, possibly in connection with the development of the map and rules connected to it.

As for the last aspect, area-specific conflicts, it may suffice to say that aside from the Regional Industries table seeing development to reflect the fact that Dalarna is home to heavy industry such as steel plants and pulp mills, we depended entirely on the players to act out all such conflicts using the game mechanics as scaffolding. I could not see much of this, which may mean that unless my colleagues picked up on this, we need to do more research before localising the game and – at the very least – tailor the information in the role descriptions of some of the players to ensure they remember/are aware of some major issues that the area is facing before they being playing the game.

It was very interesting and indeed welcome to set the game in a new area – this was proposed for the Climate Change Megagame in the past (setting the game in Norfolk, England), but was never realised as I was unable to see where to start, and now there’s a possibility I may be able to take on the task as I see more clearly what may be needed. More importantly, I’m much better prepared for setting the game in another location in Sweden, which is very likely to be called for already in 2023.

My next blog post will discuss the role of the scenario in the game and the ability of players to influence events on a global scale – and their own situation, as in the case with the low-income population players during the Borlänge playtest.

Number of players: limitations and redesign

We’ve recently concluded three playtests before which the game was developed and redesigned since the playtest in December, after which I wrote four blog posts describing the game in the state it was then. The first playtest was held at Lund University and comprised some 30 students, the second was part of the course in megagame design for sustainable development running at Linköping University this spring and was played by just under 20 students (and Darren Green, visiting megagame designer from the UK, who also played his megagame Two Degrees to Midnight with our students), and the third was held at Dalarna Science Park in Borlänge and was attended by some 25 professionals and students with connection to the energy sector in various ways.

This blog post will deal with the mechanical implications of playing megagames with 25–40 people coupled with things I learned and realised about megagames and Switching the Current while discussing the game with Darren Green during his visit to Linköping in January 2023. The next two blog post will deal with the efforts involved in localising the game to the county of Dalarna (it was originally set in Östergötland), and what the players and I experienced during the playtests, respectively. This and the next blog post will be more about game mechanics, and the third will focus more on the learning outcome of playing the game – and how to tailor it to do what we want it to: promoting better discussions about how to achieve a sustainable energy system.

All along, I’ve been designing this game with a view to a final version of 50–100 players. However, after discussing matters with Darren Green, I came to realise that ever since we started designing megagames in 2019, we’ve been getting signals that groups of 30 are the largest that the people we have talked to can imagine ever getting together. There are many reasons for this, but the bottom line is that I understood that for the time being, I’ll have to design a megagame that works well for between 20 and 40 participants. The implications of this realisation was that I decided to better define the ‘borders’ of the game, and so make hard decisions regarding which tables are to be played by teams and which are to be reduced to game mechanics handled by Control. One such table was the bank (Fig. 1), which was reduced to a single board showing the return rates on investments; two tables that have yet to be emerge also suffered the same fate, namely the Goods and Food tables, which will be developed as game mechanics rather than as tables played by teams of players (at least for the time being).

Figure 1. The banking system was reduced to a game mechanic handled by Control. In order to achieve easy of use for Control, this system only records the return rates on various investments, e.g. state bonds, mortgages, and stocks, allowing it to be used to reflect changes in the world by simply moving a few tokens up or down. A fully developed banking system as hinted at in a previous blog post would require more tables to form a subgame in its own right, and as it was not found to be essential enough to be included in the 40-player version, it will be moved down on the list of game development and become a module that can be added on should a larger version of the game ever be played.

The second implication of this realisation was that it would no longer do for tables to be played by less than two players (the least amount of players necessary to form a team) as this impacts the game experience too much; players will naturally form teams, and if they are alone they will do so with players playing other tables, which in the end makes for an unbalanced game experience. The practical obstacle was that we rarely know who is coming to a playtest beforehand and that we’ve received indications that very few people are prepared to read anything beforehand, meaning that roles will only ever be handed out when players arrive to the venue. To handle this situation, I constructed a list of roles to be handed out, ordered so as to form teams of two for the most basic functions (populations, energy companies, mayor + CFO) first, then open up more tables if there are enough players (researchers, local administrations departments, researchers, interest groups), and finally add a third player to existing teams. This means that there’s a minimum number of players (16) below which there’s no point in running the game as players will be ‘overworked’, as well as a ‘maximum’ number (39) above which no more functions are being added to the game, but teams would simply have more players with no specific roles or goals apart from that of the team.

I learned something valuable by playing Two Degrees to Midnight: After getting acquainted to the game and their team members, the leaders of three world powers spent most of their rounds (all time aside from the team and resolve phases) away from their team; they went to a separate room together with the UN Secretary-General, where they then discussed world politics, devised strategies, and issued orders for the other members of their team to carry out (as best they could). I had previously stumbled on this idea and vaguely introduced into the game, as I was not sure what it would do, but after seeing it in play I implemented it fully to the Regional Council. Currently, the Mayor assembles and heads the Regional Council, which consists of one player from each of the population tables (politicians – a role in the game), and the function of which is to give the Mayor instructions how to manage the local administration tables. The voting system is that if two players agree, the motion carries – however, if someone requests a vote, players will vote using influence tokens, which are not evenly distributed and may even belong to players outside of the Regional Council, such as the CEO of Boxhome, representing the oil and gas lobby.

These are some of the design decisions taken during the development for two of the playtests – in the next blog post I’ll cover the localisation of the game to a different county.

Playtesting CGC v0.1: reflections on the rise (but not fall) of a criminal empire

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.

The village of Åkervalla: dressing a problem in different (but familiar) garments

The latest development involves myself and my colleague sitting down a few hours to discuss how to proceed with development of the game – and ended up in us rethinking the whole thing. We realised that the problems and solutions the players would be dealing with are very abstract and general in nature, and for them to be able to engage with them we needed to make it all utterly – to the point of ridiculously – clear what each of the enablers actually meant. As we had previously gone for abstract groups of people taking general kinds of actions that generated statistics-like results on a huge map, we went the completely opposite direction and decided to try taking it all down to the village level, with very real (fictional) roles that would have to deal with negotiations regarding how to make sense of all of the enablers and try to understand which of them were reasonable. Thus it was that we came up with the (entirely fictional) village of Åkervalla.

Rough Miro board sketch of the village of Åkervalla, our latest idea for how to structure a megagame to communicate the research results from the MISTRA Sustainable Consumption project.

The scenic little village of Åkervalla has a population of a few hundred people and is situated in the south of Sweden, half an hour’s drive from the town of Eslöv. There’s a primary school, a church, a small grocery store, some shops where two roads meet, and a combined garage and filling station. In the countryside outside the village there are a few farms, one of which has been transformed into a picturesque bed and breakfast, and one which has opened a flea market in a barn. Most people commute by car to Eslöv or take the train from there to Malmö or Lund – and it’s not very far to Kastrup and from there by plane to the world.

Åkervalla has it’s own local politician, who has a seat on the Eslöv town council. From there, news arrive that action is to be taken to ensure the future of not only the village and the town, but the whole world – and this involves everyone in Åkervalla stepping up and doing their part. This news was delivered by a rather excited but somewhat clueless council member along with a bunch of directives – which go by the friendly name ‘enablers’ – and the people of the village is now trying to make sense of what it’s all about and who is to do what. What actions will have to be taken to achieve ‘sustainable consumption’, and – perhaps more importantly – what kind of place will Åkervalla be once the (apparently very high) carbon emissions from food, home furnishings, and vacations have been taken care of?

This take on the problem of communicating the research results of the MISTRA sustainable consumption project is intended to allow players to take on roles similar to the ones in megagames such as Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos and Aegon’s Conquest, i.e. personas that are relatable through their strong connections to fictional characters and places/stereotypes. Problems that present themselves in the game will be handled via the players’ personas and result in actions that are not only available to the players but reasonable from the personas’ point of view. We hope that this will have players process the enablers to make them work for their roles in the game while at the same time processing them for use outside of the game, in real life. Also, by involving stereotypes and a setting with mildly comical circumstances, we aim to have the game strike a not too serious note in order to involve players and have them take a positive view on occurrences that would be rather grim should they happen in real life, such as the school building sliding into the nearby river or half the buildings of the village being demolished to make room for a combined train station/collective housing project.

Should this approach run into problems such as too high expectations on players to roleplay to make it work or perhaps the setting taking over so that the learning goals are obscured, there’s a Plan B. This is more structural in form and uses Hayworth’s doughnut as a basis for a game room with eight tables, each of which represents an aspect of the world and society (biodiversity, equality, control over resources, etc.). At each table there’s a number of enablers that players representing businesses, local/government authorities, lobby groups, and politicians can spend resources on in an attempt to achieve more sustainable consumption – however, progress at one table may prove to be a step in the wrong direction at another, making negotiations more interesting than they may at first seem.

The first stage of the design process of Åkervalla is to populate the village based on the enablers from the MISTRA project. Next, we will figure out which resources and game pieces are required to make the enablers possible to implement; once that’s done, we will process all the enablers to make it possible for the players to understand and play them in the game. Then, we’ll structure game play into rounds and add a layer of outside influences such as world politics and extreme weather, part of which will be direct consequences of the players actions. Lastly, we will flesh out the role descriptions to make them come alive in the players’ imaginations when they read them, and also make for interesting goals that each player strives to achieve.

Hopefully this design process will go fast enough that I’ll be able to write a report after an interesting playtest session held in February, 2023 – otherwise, I might discuss what comes to my mind during the game design process.

Page 1 of 3

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén