Game Critique: Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos
by Deborah Southwell
As part of a course on game design, I was asked to critique a game. I thought it may be of interest to other Military Muddlers.
Urban Nightmare: State of Chaos (Game designer: Jim Wallman) is a megagame exploring how government and city authorities in the USA might respond to an emerging zombie apocalypse. The game is for 40-120 players and can last from a game for 4-5 hours to a game of more than a day. At full capacity, the game requires 100 players. The game is usually run face-to-face. Jim took up the COVID-19 lockdown challenge and devised a strategy for playing the game online.
This critique applies to the first online version with 61 university students playing the online game over six hours. Feedback: 1000% awesome.
Four main themes underpin the game design:
- Insight through useful conversations and deeper thinking
- Communication and negotiation
- Team building and strategic planning
- Learning about governance and politics
The formal elements of the game comprise:
- Player handbooks
- Individual player briefings
- Five city maps; a State map, a Federal map
- ‘Control’ team
- ‘control’ guides
- Feedback meters: Panic meter; popularity meters
- a Discord Server with text and video channels;
- maps located on Conceptboard;
- google spreadsheets
The formal elements in motion
Players are assigned to a role within a team.
Roles include politicians, emergency services (police/fire/medical), journalists, leaders, managers, and researchers.
Teams include five city teams, three bio-tech corporation teams, one state team, one Federal team and one press team.
Each team has their own objectives for the day and is ‘measured’ against their team objectives. ‘Victory’ may be different for each team, but everyone can ‘win’. Or lose. Each team has a ‘control team’ member assigned to assist them with any queries they may have.
There are seven turns. In turn 0, players gather in their team video channel, meet each other, and get to know the game environment. There are then three turns before a formal break for lunch, followed by another three turns and a summary and debrief session. Each turn lasts 40 minutes.
While the game has rules, the game structure is free form. Game play involves discussion within and across teams and team roles, negotiation, collaboration, decision-making, and deploying resources on maps. Outcomes of the deployment of resources and actions are played out with ‘map controls’ based on dice role for pre-determined scores. There is no ‘hero’ or ‘winner’ – everyone is an important part of the collective storytelling.
The discord channels enable communications via a general channel for game announcement, communication channels for within teams and between teams, conference rooms, plenary sessions, and news broadcasts from the press.
Each team has its own google spreadsheet on which they record the distribution of their resources and their actions. Each team spreadsheet has separate tabs for each office e.g., State has tabs for the Governor’s Office, State Police and National Guard.
Maps of each city, and the state and federal level are available through Conceptboard.
Meters are automatically updated from the spreadsheets at the end of each turn. The panic meter provides feedback on the level of panic in the city/state. Popularity meters give feedback on the political standing of leaders.
What is the play of Urban Nightmare like? Is it effective?
Much like any crisis, the game is rambling, chaotic and confusing with little control while pretend playing a significant crisis that, uncontained, could lead to a zombie apocalypse situation (Callois’s Ilinx).
There are multiple challenges, and competition (Agôn) but also the need for cooperation. Players decide what they need to do as a team, then commence communicating and negotiating with each other, their equivalents in other ‘cities’, and with members of corporations while they try to contain a zombie outbreak with its accompanying fires, damage, and casualties, and potential spread. They also try to maintain their political appeal with their public to be re-elected. City and State cannot see what is happening on the ground in each city and are dependent on the information provided to them through their contacts in the cities and through the news media with its accurate/false/misleading news. The State and Feds want to help but, in the US, State cannot intervene until a city declares a state of emergency and Federal cannot intervene until State declares a state of emergency. No one wants to declare a state of emergency and lose political points. Neither do they want to lose political points through increasing spread of zombies, fires and casualties. Corporations want live or dead zombies for their research to develop zombie controls and vaccines. Cities, states, and feds need the controls and the vaccines but there isn’t enough to go around. How do teams curry political favour, save the city from zombies, get the vaccines they need when they have limited APs(Action Points) all in the 40 minutes of each turn?
Some results are randomised through die roles (Alea) e.g., the effectiveness of actions in the cities to put out fires and contain zombies, while the actions themselves are dependent on strategic planning and decision-making.
Players are performing the roles of someone else (Mimicry) while learning governance and politics isn’t straightforward.
Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek (2004) present a MDA (Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics) framework as a formal approach to understanding games. The MDA framework provides one way to unpack, and study game design and improve our own game development practices.
The MDA framework applied to Urban Nightmare (UN)
|Desired Aesthetic||Dynamics||Mechanics||UN Game play|
|Sensation||emotional investment||working together||working together to contain and overcome the zombie outbreak|
|Fantasy||Make believe||Zombie outbreak||UN is make believe involving reality (governance/politics) and fantasy (zombie outbreak)|
|Narrative||Rising tension, release, and a denouement||Chaos, action, crisis, resolutions||UN is dramatic with chaos, action, and crisis as the story for each city, corporation, the state, and the feds as they race against time to contain the zombie menace|
|Race against time and the zombies||Multiple challenges; how to manage a rapidly changing crisis with limited resources while retaining political appeal and/or making money in a 40 minute turn|
|Fellowship||Sharing information across certain members||Online meeting rooms||Making alliances, negotiating actions, making deals|
Random variables / chance
|Chance plays very little part in the final outcome which is heavily determined by player agency. Low order outcomes (zombie dispersal) have a small element of random variation, but across the game its impact is largely cosmetic. No two games are the same mainly because of the complex interweave of player negotiation and decision-making. This is also impacted by dynamic inter-personal relationships. The outcome is also significantly affected by how quickly players understand the key decisions they need to take. On second and subsequent plays by the same players the game is very different. Once they ‘get’ the tactics they become less driven by panic and move to considering wider issues and, often, more subtle negotiation.|
|Expression||Have an impact / make a difference||Individual player actions as outlined by their brief||Players learn about themselves as communicators, negotiators, strategic thinkers, decision makers, resource managers etc|
|Submission||pastime||Online space to meet||Recreational players give their own time to play the game.|
Callois, R. (2001). Man, Play and Games. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Available at: https://www.aaai.org/Papers/Workshops/2004/WS-04-04/WS04-04-001.pdf