Towards a Megagame taxonomy
Andrew Hadley suggests a megagame taxonomy as a way to communicate to potential players more information about how a megagame is expected to work by its designer. This is driven by the influx of new megagamers, many of whom see Watch the Skies as the one type of megagame.
Firing the first shot – Towards a Megagame taxonomy
In the recent much-welcomed explosion in numbers designing and attending Megagames, I think there is merit in designers communicating clearly to players about the sort of experience they are signing up for. Contrary to some views expressed in the past, there are different sorts of Megagames and differing player expectations, and a megagame taxonomy or classification system of sorts might be one way of helping to avoid player disappointment. Whilst any such system is bound to be incomplete given the huge range of topics, formats and styles involved, I suggest the following as a start in labelling our games so as to better inform players about which games to sign up for.
I suggest a four part classification system based on:
- Topic – the time period of the game
- Format – the physical set-up of the game
- Focus – what types of activities will the players be involved in
- Style – how are the players organised
We generally do pretty well in identifying the topic, in particular the time period, often in the name of the game itself e.g.
The Spanish Road – religious and nationalist discord and geo-political challenges 1565-1585
The Jena Campaign – An operational Napoleonic game, set in 1806.
I don’t think we need to do much more in this area, though a clear description of the period and geographic area covered by the game is obviously essential for players. This can often be supported by more detail on the website and also through oral descriptions / adverts at earlier Megagames.
Open or Closed
There is an important and largely binary split between the types of games we run. Some are run on open maps, where either the players resolve many of the processes themselves or this is done by Control in front of the players.
The other end of the spectrum are closed games, where much of the resolution is done by Control on a map out of the players’ view – this often involves writing orders and relaying feedback to players afterwards. The ‘closed’ map games may allow for more detailed resolution but often progress slower given the multiple layers.
Some games may be mixed, with both open and closed elements. Other format complexities can involve restrictions on which players can go to certain tables – for example it is fairly common to limit operations maps to the operational players, if only to keep tables less crowded!
Another possible distinction might be single or multiple locations, but I’ll leave this for now.
This is a more difficult distinction around the main focus of the play, and again is often already covered in the game description (see examples above). Whilst this list necessarily isn’t exhaustive, it may be helpful to categorise what sort of in game decisions the players are likely to take. Many games have more than one focus – probably the majority of Megagames are operational and political.
Operational / Military – will usually involve some tactical decision making about multiple units on fairly detailed maps by military commanders. A recent example is 1866 and all that.
Political – high-level political decision making about peace, war and/or who gets what. This may be internal politics (cabinet, assembly) and/or external diplomacy. Conference games such as Maintenance of the Peace are often purely political (non-operational).
Economic – some element of trade, resource allocation or other economic interaction by merchants, for example the merchant elements of Guelphs and Ghibellines.
Religious – either internal religious decision making or the interaction of multiple faiths by Church players. Renaissance and Reformation had mechanics for debates between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists.
Technological – the game has some elements about science, either research or heavy use of technical elements. Most science-fiction games will fall into this category.
Arcane / Mystery / Fantasy or similar – the game has some magical, fantastic or otherwise weird element for players to interact with rather than being strictly historical. This could include ‘what if’ or alternative history games such as the Don’t Panic game about Operation Sealion.
This covers how the players are arranged, crucially to what extent they are in teams. These may overlap and games may have a mix of styles.
Tight teams – the players are assigned to a team to which they are mostly fixed for the duration. Operational games are usually fairly tight.
Loose teams – though assigned to teams or tables, players have one or more affiliations (e.g. religion or tribe) which may cut across other groupings. One example of this would be the Scientists or the DAFT activists from Watch the Skies.
Individuals – players are largely free to determine their own groupings though they are likely to have some cross-cutting affiliations. Examples include The Wind that swept Mexico, Funeral Games and Come to a King.
Megagame Taxonomy – Examples
My own recent game Come to a King would be
Topic – Early Eleventh-century Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia
Format – Open
Focus – Military, Political and Religious
Style – Loose teams and Individuals
I’d assess (though open to correction) Jaap’s recent Guelphs and Ghibellines as:
Topic – Thirteenth Century northern Italy
Format – Open
Focus – Military, Political, Economic and Religious
Style – Tight teams (with some cross-cutting Loose team affiliations)
I’d welcome any comments on this initial thinking on a Megagame taxonomy. If people feel it’s useful, perhaps we could share on the Megagame Makers page and relevant Facebook pages.
- Do people find a megagame taxonomy helpful, particularly as a way of helping players pick games?
- Is this megagame taxonomy too complicated?
- Are there major omissions in this megagame taxonomy?
- One other category I considered was Realism – where does the game stand on simulation vs. game, but I thought this was too fiddly – do people agree?
- Is there really only one type of Megagame? Or maybe two?
It’s a great idea. I’ve always thought of megagames as broadly a spectrum from political (i.e. Washington Conference) to operational (i.e. Breakthrough 1940) – which is part of what you call ‘Focus’. As a bit of critique, I’d say that your ‘Focus’ and ‘Topic’ creep into each other. Maybe ‘Focus’ could be more about the game type/mechanisms (which would have operational and political, but things like religious would be subsumed into political since it mostly works in the same way)?
My overview. Looking at each element I think you need to ask why we care about it.
Topic – a given, the default hook for the game.
Format – I am not sure why people care if it’s an open or closed mapin itself. Other aspects here might be open or hidden systems. Strict rules adherence or freeform/ad lib interpretation. Entirely player generate events or Control/scripted happenings.
Style – If I come with friends will be work together or against one another? Close teams are as you say but I think loose teams should emphasise that there will be internal conflict within the team rather than cross team affiliations. These affiliations might exist in any of the games structures (not often tight team as they will normally create intra team conflicts but they need not). It might be worth mentioning something about hierarchies here too if there are any.
Focus – obviously the pertinent part. It is about what you are going to spend your time doing. You are either talking to one another trying to stitch one another up or moving your armies about on a map*. Every megagame has had a large element of either or often both of these things in it.
You may play a fun economic or tech development game but these are generally subsytems that typically only a small number of players interact with. I feel religious/fantastical belongs more in the Topic part.
A further factor is that while a game may feature several focuses (which is a poor name as demonstrated here)** individual players will probably not do all of them.
A missing feature is that mentioned by Becky of mood or tone. Historically megagame makers games have been very much sombre treatments of their subjects. It seems that post WTS games like many of the free form roleplaying games before them have a tendency to more whimsy or even farce. You need to know if games are going to be “realistic” or fantasy. Even then whether it’s Game of Thrones or Monty Python & the Holy Grail.
*2 types of game you see.
** cant think of a better one
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