Category: Att vända strömmen Page 1 of 3

Play test of Switching the Current May 21

In the run-up to playing Switching the Current with Linköping municipality June 17, we will have a play test and facilitator’s briefing May 21. We will spend the whole day to test the game, get acquainted with roles and facilitation and ensure that we have a version that can be played June 17. Depending on the game development process, we may have an entirely new version of the game ready, or an existing version that we will train new facilitators on. Read more about Switching the Current on the Linköping University pages.

The game is intended to capture the social dynamics and relationships involved when transitioning towards sustainable energy systems for a region. The play test will involve playing different roles in this system, working towards common goals but also keeping your own interests in mind, together with others over the course of a day. We will provide food and snacks during the day to all who come. If this is something you feel interested in, please sign up!

Switching the Current goes to Uddevalla November 16

Our biggest event yet will take place in Uddevalla, November 16. 80-90 players will take on the challenge of navigating a region towards a safe and just future amidst a host of crises awaiting them along the way. Which choices will they make? We are very much looking forward to the next iteration of the game, having made several adjustments from last iteration and learning about what makes a valuable learning experience. If anyone would like to learn about the event or join as observers: please contact us (see our LiU page for contact info).

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.

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?

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.

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