EMU Wars: Onside Review – Deborah Southwell
Emu Wars is a landscape (map) -based game derived from real life events.
In 1932, over 20,000 emus, large flightless birds indigenous to Australia, broke through the rabbit-proof fence on their annual migration to the coast.
The emus saw the recently established croplands as a ‘tucker basket’, and the farmers saw the emus as dangerous enemies devastating their crops.
The Australian Army was called in to deal with the problem. The stage was set for war.
‘Emu Wars’ is my first attempt at playtesting a serious game. I aimed for players to have a fun game experience and learn something new from Australian history.
My reading built a picture of the emus as worthy warriors who earned the respect of the soldiers sent to kill them.
Major Meredith remarked on the outstanding ability of the emus to keep moving even when badly wounded.
He sighed: “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world. They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks. They are like Zulus whom even dum-dum bullets could not stop.” The Sunday Herald, 1953, p. 13.
This was reinforced by the ‘end result’ of the real encounters.
The end result of the war was arguably that the emus won via outlasting the humans. While there were no human casualties, only 986 of the roughly 20,000 emus were killed, and 9,860 bullets had been used up. With an exact 10-1 ratio of bullets to dead emu, the soldiers and the government were rightly embarrassed by the whole event and refused to repeat the experiment in later years. Someone asked in parliament whether or not medals would be given out for this war—another noted that medals should be given to the emus, who had “won every round so far.” Upton (2014).
I decided to create the game from the two different perspectives of emus and soldiers.
Members of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery
Major GPW Meredith
Sergeant S McMurray
Gunner J O’Halloran
20000+ emus (NPCs)
Wheat farm established as part of the WWI soldier settlement scheme on marginal arable inland Western Australia.
Players take turns positioning their ‘troops’ in response to what they can determine from the landscape visible to them.
Outcomes are then determined by dice roll based on player responses to opposing team actions.
I finished my personnel guides including actions and movement, but felt there was still something missing: connecting the actions to consequences, but I didn’t know how to proceed.
I talked with Jim about this trouble spot, and began seeing better how to add logical consequences to actions.
The emu base was used to record the amount of food eaten and army hits.
Landscape / Map
Jim volunteered his landscape tables and accessories, and then did most of the setting up while I managed adding players into discord and assigning roles.
I didn’t use a common player guide. Instead, I customised a separate guide for the Emu Warriors and the Army to encourage their two different mindsets and approaches to the game.
Military Personnel Guide https://docs.google.com/document/d/1F3afBuEjTMw1eyJenXawixDDqs_0yn22tSPiO4y8uKE/edit?usp=sharing
As I hadn’t previously created my own server, Jim supported me in the process which I then found fairly straightforward.
I settled for the following text and video channels:
I didn’t need to add in a channel for Control as Jim and I were in the same room for the game. Our biggest challenge in that context was taking turns and remembering to mute the microphone when the other person was talking to their team.
Players could view the landscape from their positions through webcams feeding into discord. Unfortunately, discord flips video so the players and my view is back to front from that of the photo and actual landscape. Despite many requests on Discord channels, there still appears to be no toggle function. Please let me know if there is a way to manage this.
Live view – truck heading right
Discord view – truck heading left
Narrative of the Game
Jim acted as Control for the Emu Warriors while I was Control for the Army.
I allowed thirty minutes for reading the briefing and planning initial strategy and actions.
Surprisingly, the game followed history and I became concerned for the dropping morale of the soldiers.
One emu group reached their feeding target and were readying to head towards the coast when I ended the game to allow time for review.
Lesson 1: This isn’t a re-enactment
At the beginning of planning, I was hamstringing myself wanting to be faithful to history, and wanting to represent Australia authentically. I realised that players could always read the history and the world wouldn’t come to an end if the army won in my game. Instead, I focused on creating an experience which would convey the challenges for both ‘sides’ without having to control each move. I was able to focus on my mantra of ‘simple and workable’ in the design and execution.
Lesson 2: Army, farmers, politicians, press, wheat board …. Emus
I didn’t know how many might turn up for the game so found choosing roles difficult as I could choose from a number of different perspectives. Staying with my mantra of ‘simple and workable’ helped me refine to two player roles, ‘emus’ and ‘army’.
I wanted to maintain flexibility to expand or shrink the player list depending on how many people turned up, or didn’t. With a potential cast of 20,000 emus, I didn’t need to be a worry.
Lesson 3: Player morale
I was challenged during the game by how accurately the game was playing out. I found it difficult seeing the demoralising effect on the soldier players, as it was for the soldiers involved in 1932.
We recorded food and hits on the emu base so the emus had a good sense of their progress towards their goal of enough food to then move on to the coast.
The soldier players found, as in real life, nothing they tried had much impact. I think this aspect of the game could be improved with some other interesting sidelines for the soldier players – a budding romance with the farmer’s daughter to pursue back at the farmhouse rather staying out trying to get the emus, or the opportunity to see how many miles you can get careening in the truck on country roads or off road corrugated tracks.
Lesson 4: Be flexible
I hadn’t anticipated some incidents e.g., a soldier being mobbed by passing emus, or the same soldier clubbing a passing emu.
In real life, a wounded emu charged into a truck disabling it. I hadn’t expected this to happen in the game so when it did, I had to rapidly think through a reasonable consequence.
Would I do it again?
I would do the game again. I would like to experiment with creating a game that reflects the political and/or economic context in Australia/ Western Australia at the time.
It would then be interesting to see how emu wars game could be a part of the broader political and economic game of the time.
Thanks for all the encouragement from those who participated and those who sent messages to me if they weren’t able to participate.
Thanks to Jim for practical ideas and support and helping me join the dots on the last design leg.
Eureka Miniatures UK https://www.eurekaminuk.com/
Australian War Memorial (2019). ‘Kangaroo feathers and the Australian Light Horse. Accessed at: https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/lhplumes/feathers
Special Correspondent (1953). New Strategy in a War on the Emu. The Sunday Herald, p. 13. Accessed at: https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18516559
Upton, E. (2014). Emus vs Humans: The Great Emu War of 1932. Accessed at: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/01/great-emu-war-1932/