Category: Att vända strömmen Page 2 of 3

Heart of the game: the population boards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Minimising movement: using a steady-state game system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Realising ideas: creating game pieces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining the real-world issue: what is it all about?

In this post I’ll first deal with the three design directions that I outlined in an earlier post and then go on to an attempt at formulating the main real-world issue that I believe we’re trying to get at with the game. This is surely not the final wording, but it may be enough to actually complete the first version of the game, which we’re going to playtest this autumn (sign up here if you want to participate – the form is in Swedish, however, and in case this stops you from signing up, please let me know).

Over the past week, I’ve pursued the three design directions and tried to make a basic megagame out of each one of them. This endeavour has been less than successful, and the reason is that each one of them all failed to encompass the entirety of the issue we’re trying to get at with this game in a different way, which meant that each time I realised that I was indeed creating a whole new game. This in itself isn’t a problem (Wallman even mentioned in his series of blog posts this would be the case), and through this exploration I found that I was still struggling to define the main real-world issue on which I am to base the game.

In the case of the Power Grid board game, the definition of energy as ‘electricity’ and leaving out the need for/consumption of electricity/energy made the scaffolding provided by the game too narrow to make it useful – this isn’t a game primarily about producing and distributing electricity/energy in competition with other companies, but about a society trying to get to grips with its reliance on an unsustainable energy system. As for building a game directly on the model energy system created by a member of our team, this included both the production/transfer and consumption of multiple types of energy (electricity, various fuels/gas) connected to data on expected behaviours of individuals, which meant that the society that the energy system was set to provide for is invisible. The opposite was true for the Climate Change Megagame, which is primarily about deciding which parts of society that are to be changed in order to reach a carbon-free society by 2050, and thus leaves out the matter of energy or – more precisely – leaves it to be handled by invisible mechanisms such as the ‘market principle’ or ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ reasoning.

What dawned on me as I studied these three games was that the megagame we’re constructing needs to – in addition to making energy the main concern on which all other, environmental or otherwise, depend – take into account the whole of the energy system, not just the parts of that I – and likely most people – normally think about. Energy is so fundamental as to make it difficult to think of as a separate entity, and so in our everyday lives we very often do so only in terms of electricity, gas, and various types of fuels. This is one conception we should be challenging, so that players become aware of all the energy produced and expended by the role they are playing, wherever and however this takes place. Otherwise, players are likely to repeat the mistakes of the past and in so doing we risk perpetuating the misconceptions about the energy system on our planet that led to the situation we’re currently in rather than give people a chance to see it in a different light and get innovative about solving problems related to it after playing our game.

The problem became even more apparent as I attempted to create a game based on what I had learned. After sketching up the traditional parts of the energy system – transportation of people and goods, heating of houses and food, and powering industrial production processes – which are indeed very easily represented in a game (sourcing, production, distribution, consumption), and began working on consumption goods/food and building of vehicles/houses, I noticed that I automatically changed focus from energy to which raw materials were used, how much of a carbon footprint was created, and what kind of environmental impact would be involved. I found that I was unable to understand how to approach e.g. the purchase of a cheap flashlight from an energy point of view – the complexity of trying to figure out the steps in which to get to grips with how something as mundane as a one-dollar trinket came into being in terms of energy was simply baffling to my mind.

However, I understood that this was something I could not simply hand-wave and leave for later, as it stands at the very centre of the main real-world issue we’re trying to get at: a sustainable energy system – for the entire planet, not just the parts we arbitrarily select to look at. From a game-design perspective it would in my opinion be ridiculous to expect players of a game about the transition of the energy system to a sustainable one to not question the fact that consumption goods appear in stores each turn from outside the game, are sold by business players to satisfy the demands of population players, and are then incinerated to produce heat and electricity to be used by industrial players and population players. I found myself asking where this (almost magical) resource came from, where the energy required to create it was expended, and – perhaps more to the point – who were so kind as to supply it in endless amounts whenever we asked them to (by way of giving them money)? Was it part of an exchange of energy of some sort, so that we give them (or someone in a multi-partner trade deal) an equal amount of energy in return? These questions are crucial in understanding what we’re trying to do here:

Understanding the sustainability of the energy system in light of all of the energy imported, exported, produced, and consumed by the people represented by the different roles in the game.

This way of seeing the issue means that consumer goods and food cannot be treated as separate parts of the game, and that buying a car made abroad or building a house does not primarily mean expending ‘resources’ but energy. With this, the game will most likely move into disputed territory by making use of some rather broad generalisations that may not sit well with everybody – but this is one thing that I find that games are good at, i.e. help us traverse bridges that are too narrow for our everyday shoes or too weak to support the weight of our preconceptions of things. It will most likely involve (Swedish) players facing the fact that they are used to having at their command a vast amount of energy that they need not be overly concerned about spending as there is (very nearly) always more where it came from, all but free of charge.

For my next blog post, I’ll be going into how the talks I’ll have with my colleagues – who are far more knowledgeable in all things energy than I – will impacted the design of the game. Unless I’m simply too busy designing the first playtest session to write, in which case I’ll update you on that event and what was learned.

Basic tenets: what will the game be about?

With all the games I’ve designed so far, there has come a moment when all (or at least some) of the basic tenets of the game suddenly become utterly clear. This may sound suspiciously like an epiphany, but I would say that it is more of a decision, reached through hours and days of sifting information, listening to other’s ideas, and failed attempts at drawing up lists of the things I’d like to see in the game. Nor does it mean that I’ve drawn up a comprehensive plan, so that the rest of the process is simply a matter of putting in a number of hours of design and playtesting to make this grand idea into reality. On the contrary, I often find that what this stage of the process is mostly about is my brain catching up to what has been evident (to many others) all along. I suspect this is the case here, so please bear with me.

The game will be about negotiating the allocation of available energy in light of the fact that our supply of energy isn’t unlimited.

This very basic – and to be fair, even crude – statement is the sum of the realisations about the energy system and the world in general I’ve made over the past few weeks. I’ll list them below, not only for you to marvel at the size of the stone I’ve been living under for most of my life, but to clarify my thinking regarding the basic tenets for the game that I’ve put down at the end of this blog post.

The first realisation I made was that the real problem with the current energy system is that much of our current use of fossil fuels, and indeed some of the ‘renewable’ energy types as well, can in fact be compared to using our/the world’s savings to pay for an ever-increasing consumption of everyday products rather than investments meant to yield higher returns later on. The second was that the word ‘transition’ is mostly used (and thus understood) in the context of from which sources we will obtain our energy in the future, rather than addressing our use of energy in terms of scale of consumption and who is given access to energy. The third was that when we say that energy has been ‘saved’, this often means that we have managed to shift energy consumption from one part of the process to another, and that the amount of energy consumed is roughly the same on the whole.

The fourth realisation emerged from the combination of the facts that we expect our children to lead not just comparable but better lives than we do, and that most people consider a fair reward for a hard day’s work to be something that requires energy to make, such as a bag of crisps, a hot shower, a new sweater, or a weekend in a nearby city. This means that any vision of the future in which people are expected to work as much as we do and be rewarded (or even compensated) with access to less energy than we currently are appears utterly undesirable to most people’s minds – it simply doesn’t fit with our expectations on life. In my opinion, this isn’t extraordinary in any way, but part of being human: I imagine that, throughout history, people have been expecting more of life for both themselves and their children (call it hope, if you will) – what’s changed over the last hundred years or so is that quite a few of those people have been able to use Earth’s vast supply of fossil energy to get (some) of the things they were asking for. Being children of our time, the only thing that separates us from our pre-fossil-fuel-using ancestors is that we’re less used to being refused when we ask life (and society) for more than our parents had.

The implications for the game are these: when it begins (in the 2020s), the population has a lifestyle that consumes a certain amount of energy either directly (e.g. fuel for driving cars and heating houses) or indirectly (e.g. transportation of goods to the country/stores/houses, production of goods/food, building of housing, healthcare, community services). No actions can be taken in the game without allocation of energy – money is simply the grease to make the wheels go round, nothing more. This means that e.g. eliminating all private cars in the game without making any other changes will only force players to allocate more energy to public transportation and delivery services, as the distance people and goods/food must travel to be consumed has not changed. This also applies to shifting production of goods/food from global to local in order to avoid spending energy on long-distance transportation between production sites and stores/houses – this means more energy must instead be allocated to the sourcing and transporting of raw materials and powering of production facilities. At the end of the game, players will realise that their success should really be assessed based on their access to energy, which is not necessarily related to the amount of money they have.

To my mind, this game is meant to address what I refer to as the ‘slippery aspect’ of the problem that the energy system is set up to solve – unless players become aware of the assumption inherent in the game – i.e. that a perceived need for energy not automatically means that the world should produce more energy so that we can have what we want, which is to say more than our parents had – and actively attempt to change this, they will spend most of the game shifting the problem around rather than dealing with it. As for the strategy of relying on technological development and the possibility of solving the problem through increased energy efficiency without having to make any changes to consumption patterns, it will certainly be available in the game. Taking this path will, however, require spending energy on researching these new solutions and investments to make them available to the public, as well as running the risk of technology not being available when needed – in my view, expecting results from research the way one does from factory production is akin to gambling, however high the odds of failure are. Else, players are looking at a future that will either be considerably warmer (small or no changes in energy consumption patterns) or very restricted in terms of individual freedom (severe cuts in the use of non-renewable fuels).

Based on this, I’ve formulated some basic tenets for the game:

  • The primary currency in the game will be energy. Money will be used primarily to facilitate trade and may be useless to players in many situations.
  • The game will be based on a status-quo system, meaning that at the start of the game all energy will be allocated based on the current consumption pattern and during the game players will negotiate changes to the allocation rather than spend their time buying and selling energy.
  • Populations will be very sensitive to changes in lifestyle and, unless radical action is taken during the game, will expect to be able to consume more energy, i.e. have access to more energy and/or enjoy a higher energy-to-consumption ratio, at the end of the game.
  • Individuals’ desire for independence/personal freedom will be the main problem facing all attempts to increase energy efficiency based on them forming communities/collectives in order to share resources.
  • Populations will initially expect all deficiencies (of energy and otherwise) that they suffer to be handled by the local authorities to handle, which will involve allocation of energy.
  • Politicians will have the power to declare the direction society/populations should ideally be moving in, but are limited to persuading other players to do things, even their own agencies/authorities.
  • Businesses will be faced with the Fishbanks dilemma: if they make more money now, they may make no money later – however, if they do not cater to the needs of the population now, they may not be around to enjoy their profits later.

So far, so good – next I’ll go on to see what this means in terms of the three design directions I outlined in an earlier post.

AVS/CCM på Knutpunkt 2022

9-12 september gick årets internationella konferens för LARP (Live Action Role-Play) i Linköping. Det var mycket givande att bolla våra idéer av storskaliga rollspel kombinerat med brädspelskomponenter, med den stora erfarenhet av att skapa upplevelser som finns LARP-världen. Många lärdomar och några nya samarbeten följde med hem. Återigen blir det tydligt hur viktigt det är att lyckas kombinera upplevelsen av en hållbar samhällsomställning med en konkret förståelse dess utmaningar och magnituden av olika åtgärders effekter.

The necessity of input: constructing a design brief

Next week, I will begin design of the game along the three approaches I mentioned in my last post, and before then I need to develop my understanding of what kind of game I’m supposed to design. Not only in the sense of what kind of game it’s supposed to be – it’s already been decided that I’m creating a megagame – but more specifically what part of reality it’s supposed to reflect (and to what degree) and what playing the game will mean for those involved. In this case, access to what I will here refer to loosely as a ’design brief’ is extremely useful – not only will it facilitate making design decisions, but it will also reduce the number of times the game needs to be (more or less completely) redesigned after receiving feedback from my team. There is no formal design brief handed to me by the project, nor have we included the drawing up of one in the project structure – I find this situation to be less than ideal as I stand ready to begin the design process, and so will take this insight with me to my next project, which just happens to be the Changing the Game of Consumption megagame, which I also blog about (a link will be added once I’ve published my first post). In the meantime, I’ll draw up a design brief on my own based on what I’ve learned so far and ask my team for feedback.

This research project started in November 2021 and has thus been running for a little less than a year. During this time, the nine-person project team has undertaken a literature review and a gap analysis, as well as spent quite a few hours discussing what each of us see this game being about. Being a game designer in a group of scholars, my priority has been to listen in order to learn as much as I can about the topic (energy systems and their transition from unsustainable to sustainable) and keep an open mind so as not to dismiss any ideas that may prove useful later on. I’ve made a tonne of notes along the way, which I’ve now revisited in an effort to put together a design brief in the form of a list of things that should be in the game. I plan on using this list to assess the outcome of my work and help me stay on track during the design process, as well as show it to the members of my team in order to receive feedback and make course corrections in my work.

The items on the list below consist of things that the members of my team have expressly stated they believe should be included in the game and things that I think should be included based on discussions between various team members and my experience. This is simply the first version of theis list, and it may well be updated when my team read it and provide me with feedback:

  • The game should include mechanics for manipulating a simplified model of the Swedish energy system over time in order to receive results that affect both individual/groups of players and the game as a whole.
  • Players should be able to take on roles that they are not trained for outside of the game, thus providing them with an opportunity to explore the transition of the energy system from a different angle than they would in real life.
  • Players should experience the effects of both their own and all players’ collective actions and be forced to adapt strategies and actions to a continually developing situation.
  • The game should be constructed so as to inspire players to experiment with new ideas in a setting that is similar but not identical to the reality they face outside of the game.

Looking at it, I realise that the list is quite abstract and say very little about what mechanics to use or level of difficulty/requirements on preparation. Also, I’m guessing that quite a few of the people on my team feel that it leaves out important things that they want to see in the game or feel that they have contributed in our discussions. This is precisely why I made it – to get the discussion going and benefit by the power of the fantastic minds I work with. In my experience, being a game designer is less about being a rock star and more about serving as a secretary on a committee of highly skilled professionals: I ask them a question, then listen carefully to what they say and note all the ideas that come up, both the ideas they have and those that crop up in my mind as I listen to them.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the thoughts that my team have offered and try to say something of how I receive and integrate feedback in the design process.

Choosing paths: where to start the design of a megagame

In my very first post, I briefly presented myself and the Switching the Current project and stated the aim of this blog on megagame design: it’s part open research journal, part invitation to contribute with thoughts and ideas to the game design process. In this post, I’ll go into the choices made and dilemmas faced at the very beginning of the design process, i.e. where to start.

I’ll begin by admitting one of my flaws as a game designer (and elsewhere): when I do something new, I have a tendency to invent the wheel – even when I’m well aware there’s plenty of experience to draw upon. When researching what later became the Climate Change Megagame (CCM), I listened to Episode 2 of the Last Turn Madness: a podcast about Megagames in which Jim Wallman discussed megagames. Had I been anyone but myself, I would have immediately googled and found Wallman’s four-post guide to ‘Megagame Design The Easy Way’ that he wrote just six months before I began to wrestle with the megagame format in earnest. Being who I am, I instead opted to start from scratch having studied Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos and attended a playtest session of Event Horizon by megagame designer Johan Olofsson of Gothenburg Megagames. This choice took me and my fellow game designers on a long and winding journey that began with a highly detailed board game (a genre which I’m more familiar with and which grew impossibly complex already at 20 players in September 2019, via three playtests of increasingly less complex versions in late 2019 and early 2020, to a complete overhaul in the summer of 2020 and ultimately to the relatively playable (but far from perfect) online version of the CCM that was played by 45 players (roughly half of what it was designed for) in November 2020.

The lesson I learned during this journey is explained in a few lines by Wallman in his guide: start with an existing (board or computer) game and develop it into a megagame. Before worrying about copyright infringements, rest assured that the resulting megagame won’t look anything like the original – by the time it’s been scaled up to host dozens or even hundreds of players, it’s certain to be quite unrecognisable even to the designers of the original game. Wallman provides three excellent examples of this process and in my future posts I will explain how I’ve utilised his advice – here, I’ll simply note that I’ve learned my lesson: it is far, far easier to start out the process of designing a megagame with an existing game (or any other kind of structure, e.g. a computer model or an organisational chart) as a scaffold.

For the current design process, this meant that the very first choice to be made was not whether or not to use a scaffold, but which game or other structure to use as a scaffold. I decided on presenting my research team with three potential approaches that I will develop side by side in the months to come – my idea was that additional approaches would have required too much effort from both me and my team and fewer would have limited the scope of the design process already at the outset. I will continually evaluate each approach to determine if it’s interesting in terms of achieving the goals of our research project, and eventually arrive at a single design approach by elimination and merging of approaches.

The three approaches that I currently pursue are:

  • Adapting the Power Grid board game by Friedemann Friese
  • Redesigning the CCM to place its focus on the transition of the energy system
  • Creating a megagame based on a model of the Swedish energy system that is currently being constructed by members of my team, primarily Associate Professor Lena Buffoni at the Department of Computer and Information Science at Linköping University

The first approach has the advantage of being a well-known game about a national energy system, albeit focusing exclusively on electricity and not going into details regarding who the energy consumers are and what they want. In this choice I was inspired by Wallman’s development of the Sengoku megagame that was based on the classic board game Shogun by Dirk Henn. After I’ve populated the megagame version with 50-100 players it’s very likely that there’s much of the original game left – however, I consider it an interesting starting point as the original game design will suggest both which player groups are essential (producers, suppliers and consumers of energy) and which aspects of reality have been removed in order to make the board game playable (civic society, land use, politics).

The second approach has the advantage of already being a megagame for 80+ players and having been built to simulate a geographic area (the county of Östergötland in southeast Sweden). The drawback with this approach is that, due to the complex nature of the energy system, it was intentionally simplified during the design process so as not to steal the attention of the players from other parts of the game. Thus, the transition of the energy system that we wish to focus on in the Switching the Current megagame is more or less invisible in the current version of CCM, as it is implicit in almost every part of the game. However, as much of the logic of a megagame is already present, an attempt at redesigning it to focus on the energy system should be well worth the effort.

The third option originated in the fact that the Switching the Current project has a simulation component, attempting to ascertain if and how computer simulations can be used to support playing megagames – I simply asked myself if it is possible to design a megagame based on the computer model that it is supposed to support. This would be quite complicated if the computer model was entirely based on the megagame itself, but as it is currently being developed with the aim to simulate the energy system in Sweden, I plan on basing the design of the megagame on the model of the energy system and then let the game design process inform the development of the computer model. However, as the model is in it’s early phases of development, this approach will have to wait until later this year before I begin to develop it.

With this, I’ve outlined the three paths I have chosen for the game design process. In my next post, I’ll be going into the ‘game design brief’ that I’ll get from my team after they’ve held workshops and interviews with some stakeholders based on a presentation of two of the three design approaches.

Designing the Switching the Current megagame: why blog about game design?

First of all let me introduce myself: I’m Magnus Persson, lead game designer of the Switching the Current megagame. Together with a team of eight researchers, I’m in charge of designing a megagame that allows players to gain insight into how the transition of the energy system into a sustainable one may play out over the next few decades. The reason we do this in game form is that we believe it will give players a chance to see things from a different perspective than they normally do and so, in the words of Claude Garcia, instead of “negotiating about the world [they] want, but about what’s available”, help them “understand the issues faced by other players”. We do this in the hope that the people playing will see things differently and make wiser and better-informed decisions afterwards.

I’ve done this kind of thing once before – together with Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist at Linköping University, I was the lead designer of Climate Change Megagame (CCM) which premiered on November 21, 2021. In CCM, players attempt to transform the county of Östergötland in eastern Sweden in order to achieve a sustainable, carbon-neutral society in 2050. It was my first megagame and I learned a lot about game design, which you can read about in the journal article we published in Forum för Utomhuspedadgogik (Citizen’s views on climate-change adaptation) and also the three blog posts we wrote for PAXsims (Building a climate change megagame). However, the most important lesson was that after we had concluded the design phase of the game, it was very, very difficult to remember the thoughts that guided me during the various steps on the way towards a playable game, and thus to reflect on the choices I had made based on the information I had at the time rather than assessing the same choices with the final result before my eyes. Although the latter may be preferable in some cases, I’m more interested in getting insight into what the design process looks like from the game designer’s perspective while they are in the ‘midst of the fray’, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one.

This blog will thus work as a research journal that will allow me to reflect both on my thoughts and ideas during the game design process and on how and why I made the choices I made after the design process is concluded. It will also let my fellow researchers and stakeholders in the Switching the Current project keep up to date with what I’m currently working on and open up for to them contribute to the game design process with their expertise. Last but not least, it will provide insight into the process of designing a megagame to other game designers – or anyone interested in learning more about the considerations that occupy the mind of megagame designer and giving some insight into the choices I’m faced with and understand the reasons behind the decisions I make. Regardless of your interest in my blog, I hope you enjoy it and learn something from reading it!

The next blog post (and likely the one after that as well) will be on how to come up with and choose between different avenues of game design, and also about how to apply what Jim Wallman says about megagame design to the design of the Switching the Current megagame.

– – –

Before writing this first blog post, I did some research: I recommend reading Janet Salomons’s very insightful post Share Your Research on a Blog to define the purpose of your blog (I believe mine to be a combination of solo/researcher-to-public and collaborative/researcher-to-researcher, but I may be wrong). Mark Carrigan’s insightful Prezi Using your blog as a research journal gave a lot of food for thought on what to do with my blog and how to do it, and Duncan Green’s An antidote to futility: Why academics (and students) should take blogging/social media seriously gave me support that this approach is the right one and also to keep my posts rather short, for the sake of both myself and my readers.

Spelet om konsumtionen

Från hösten 2022 och två år framåt kommer vi att försöka kommunicera forskningen i projektet MISTRA Sustainable Consumption genom användningen av Megagames. Detta finansieras av Formas som ett forskningskommunikationsprojekt vi kallar “Spelet om konsumtionen”, eller “Changing the game of consumption”. Syftet är att mån nya grupper och kommunicera på ett engagerande sätt kring avgörande val vi behöver göra kopplat till vår konsumtion och livsstil i omställningen till ett hållbart samhälle. På den här webbplatsen kommer vi att rapportera löpande om de aktiviteter vi ägnar oss åt, inklusive speldesign och speltester.

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