Megagames, Conventions, and Covid-19
For the audio-inclined among us, Noah and I also recorded a chat about Gen Con this year and running megagames at Cons in general with Becky (of BeckyBecky Blogs) in a MegaCon Mini-Panel, linked here!
Lead up to Gen Con
Peter: Oh man, this was a crazy Gen Con. This was a crazy year!
Noah: Yes, it all was.
Peter: Thankfully, Gen Con ended up being crazy in a good way! And let me put it on the record, we had serious doubts!
Earlier this year, it appeared that Covid was on the wane and indoor gatherings would be safe enough to organize and attend, BUT THEN THE DELTA VARIANT HAPPENED.
We went from an over-supply of volunteers to 50% of the volunteers we needed over the span of the two and a half weeks leading up to the convention. Once committed volunteers backed out for deeply selfish reasons like not wanting to expose themselves and their loved ones to a surging, unknown variant of a deadly pandemic. Rude.
Noah: Peter is, of course, kidding. We totally understand and support those who decided the risk of attendance to be too high for their life situation.
Peter: It ended up being their loss because this was one hell of a Gen Con! But let’s not skip ahead. In the lead up to Gen Con, we were: (1) understaffed, (2) missing critical AV equipment, and (3) both busy as heck! You had been on the road for two weeks at that point living the digital nomad lifestyle, right?
Noah: Yes, and I think you mentioned that you were preparing to defend your doctoral thesis?
Peter: Haha, yes, I think I mentioned that… once or twice…
Peter:…I passed by the way.
Noah: Great! Haha, shall we get into it?
Peter: Let’s start from the top!
Den of Wolves
Peter: Den of Wolves is a modern classic of a megagame by UK designer, John Mizon, heavily inspired by the pilot episode of Battlestar Galatica. We ran the game three times over the course of the Con and you were the head moderator for all three games, how did that feel to be the head moderator for all three games?
Noah: It was definitely a bit stressful, given our lack of volunteers. Den of Wolves runs pretty light on moderation, but we took it a bit lighter than what we would have done under ideal circumstances. Thankfully everything wound up going fairly smoothly though!
Peter: So what were some highs and lows from a game perspective and also an organizer perspective?
Noah: From a game perspective, a positive was when players decided to make tests to see if there were traitors in their midst. This happens quite often, but simulating medical tests in the pandemic era had a bit of a surreal feeling that I think many players enjoyed.
From the perspective of an organizer, it was great to have nearly full events, with highly-engaged players. That definitely helped to alleviate the staffing concerns!
Peter: Any favorite players or player-moments from the Con?
Noah: This question always feels like a “pick your favorite child” type question, but one big highlight was when we diverted from Den of Wolves to Phoenix Wright: Space Attorney at the end of a game. The traitor testers had produced evidence, and the players convened a trial. It was great!
Peter: Very well, on to exhibit number 2?
As Thou Commands
This was the first in-person runs of As Thou Commands, some planned improvements to the in-person As Thou Commands bulleted here.
Peter: As Thou Commands is my fairly experimental megagame design that encourages players to create their own narrative universe within the framework of either a fictional feudal kingdom in a fantasy universe (As Thou Commands: Fantasy Edition) or a loosely historical Holy Roman Empire (As Thou Commands: History but Inclusive Edition). It is the closest event to a LARP that we ran this year and, crucially, it was the design the most affected by the undersupply of moderators. I was planning to run at a 1:6 moderator to player ratio, which is high for a megagame, and we ended up running at around a 1:12 ratio.
Noah: It was not ideal.
Peter: I was tempted to pull out the events, especially since this was the first in-person run of the game. I’m glad I didn’t.
Noah: For the folks at home, why is that Peter?
Peter: IT WENT GREAT! Well… they went… good! Given the circumstances.
Noah: I think the players had a lot of fun. What do you think went right?
Peter: The in-person experience of negotiating and collectively crafting narrative content cannot be understated. Collectively crafting narrative content is definitely the strongest part of the design, and boy, did it sing in-person.
Beyond that, I’m just exceedingly thankful it worked at all. We had no walkouts from either run of the game (rare for Gen Con events) and some genuinely hilarious, heartwarming, and nerve-racking moments throughout both runs. I ran the “Monarch’s Council” which had the leading “Dux/Duke/Duchess” players attend from all the Duchies every other turn. I was blown away with the roleplay and dedication to the narrative universe they crafted. There were plenty of tough, close votes almost every time the council met, with plenty of subtle semi-threats, bribery, bitter compromise, rhetorical flourishes, and more!
What are your thoughts from moderating during our Fantasy Edition run of the game?
Noah: I thought it went very well! Players were definitely as creative within their duchies as they were at the council. My favorite moments were how one of my table almost inadvertently started a war with a death cult (that totally wasn’t a cult). My other table attempted to broker diplomacy and intrigue through their beer production!
Peter: I was quite surprised/amazed at the diversity of the duchies from a tonal perspective. Although there certainly were a plethora of cults: death cults, god-king cults, soup cults…
Noah: Ah yes, how could I forget to mention the soup cult? That reminds me of the other thing I really enjoyed about As Thou Commands, which was how quickly all the teams created interwoven economic networks. One of my tables had to rethink their salt production for environmental reasons, which had an outsized impact on the Soup Cult. Very fun to watch!
Peter: How am I going to prolyzetize the glory of soup with bland seasonings?? Haha
Improvements planned for the next in-person runs of As Thou Commands
- Running the game at the intended moderator count
- Lowering number of aspects drafted down to four or five (from six)
- Reassessment of House Drive Briefs and suggested victory conditions
- Simplifying the income of the Dux players (as done during the Fantasy run of the game)
- Better and more rigid timing of turns (AV-assisted)
- Actually doing Acts of God each turn (written in rules but not executed due to turn timing shenanigans) – this also means increasing gold influx into the game economy
- More novel kingdom-wide events/dilemmas
- Second edition of pre-written dilemmas
- Better UI at the tables
- More encouragement for adding to collective narrative content (drawn maps, etc.)
- Increasing rate at which freeform elements (notecards) are introduced into the game, and increasing amount entering the game
- Maybe creating a suggested framework for resolving conflicts involving freeform elements (notecards)
- More/better leveraging of the historical source materials (for the History but Inclusive edition of the game) – I actually quite enjoyed the Holy Roman Empire as a backdrop and I wouldn’t mind taking a second crack at that in the future
Sickle: A Fan-Made Scythe Megagame
Peter: Sickle is my little pride and joy of a design. It combines NSDM (National Security Decision Making) mechanics and the 1920+ universe created by Jakub Rozalski of the Scythe board game by Stonemaier Games (Check out this previous post on the design/first play through, and this post linking to the game rules pdf).
For this run, I was lead moderator and moderator for the Saxony Empire (alt-history German Empire-Weimar Republic hybrid) and you moderated the Crimean Khanate (alt-history Crimean Khanate). Tell me Noah, what did your Great Khan get up to? Were they alive and in power at the end of the game?
Noah: The Khanate was a bit under-powered relative to the rest of the European powers in the game. Other teams were very excited when they invented earthquake-producing doomsday machines. The Khanate was celebrating when they invented a means to extract ore from the mountains that was powered by a horse. A one-horse power drill.
They were alive at the end. I wouldn’t say they were necessarily in power, but due to their relative isolation, the Khanate might rise up at the end after the great powers destroy each other in warfare. What did your teams get up to?
Peter: I had a real hoot with my team. There was a bit of a strange political situation where the leftist political groups united with the liberals and some of the conservative player roles did not get filled, leading to a literally unprecedented left-leaning and relatively pacifistic Saxony Empire. I was worried that being so pacifistic would lead them to having less to do. I was thankful the players engaged in tense internal negotiations about everything from drugs, jazz, public health, the budget, government-subsidized monopolies (very tense), patent protection, agricultural reform, and the setup of a Finland protectorate (and what that would mean for the Empire’s Bunderstat).
Noah: Finland, eh?
Peter: Ya! The Finns were trying to secure economic investment and national security from those commies in the Rusviet Union (alt-history revolutionary Russia). It was a bit of a strange situation because the Saxony military was so underfunded they’d never be able to defend themselves, let alone Finland! I made sure everyone knew this, including the Rusviets, but the Rusviets were simply preoccupied with other things at the moment.
Noah: You mean like the war against the Great Khan’s horse-powered hordes?
Peter: Haha, at one horse-power per horse, that’s got to count for something right?
People! I love them!
Peter: I think we’re both in agreement that this Gen Con was something special. To me it felt there was something in the air. Everyone was just so understanding and excited to be there.
Noah: Absolutely. After a long year, with no large social gatherings, even a scaled-back Gen Con felt pretty magical.
Peter: And we had literally the greatest volunteers! I loved everyone’s vibe and I loved our evening drinks at the bar in the hotel. I’m getting nostalgic just thinking about it.
Ya know, the Con overall just felt slightly slower-paced, in a good way. Less hustle and bustle, less players leaving early to get to other events on time. It reminded me of the way grognard’s reminisce about the early years of Gen Con. I think everyone even talked slightly slower/quieter than usual, although that might have been a side-effect of our location in a hotel ballroom vs. our normal Gen Con outpost in the acoustic hell that is Lucas Oil Stadium.
Noah: Definitely, given that it was only my second Gen Con, I think that every Gen Con in the future will be ruined compared to how relaxed it was. I think everyone was just happy to be back at Gen Con, which resulted in much less anxiety and stress across the whole of the attendee population.
Noah & Peter's Miscellaneous Highlights
- To the best of our knowledge, Gen Con did NOT end up being a super spreader event, which is fantastic. Everyone followed the Con’s mask policy without enforcement from us and neither of us got Con crud as a side effect.
- Getting a hotel ballroom for the convention. The acoustics are much better than our usual spot in the stadium!
- The dealer hall was surprisingly peaceful this year to meander through.
- After-game drinks at the hotel bar with the rest of the crew!
- Having repeat players come back game after game.
- Having some pretty hardcore NSDM veterans (and staff) experience Sickle.
- Peter getting to meet Draft Night 3077 & 3078 players in person!
- WE CAN’T STRESS ENOUGH HOW AWESOME THE MGC TEAM WAS THIS YEAR! YOU. ALL. SAVED. OUR. BACON. AND. MADE. WHAT. WAS. A. STRESSFUL. SITUATION. QUITE. ENJOYABLE. WE. LOVE. YOU. ALL!
Thanks to all our players this year, and a special thanks to our all the folks who volunteered their time and energies to making megagames at Gen Con possible:
& Cliff Prestly