board games

Watch The Skies: Organising a megagame

This is the first in a set of three articles about a megagame I ran this weekend. I’ve split it into these parts:

I was one of the primary event organisers. You can also try these excellent reports from players:

Yesterday, I ran a megagame. Broadly, the term “megagame” broadly means any physical game that involves 20+ players and runs for an entire day. They come from the wargaming world, but when Shut Up and Sit Down, a boardgaming website, found themselves in one in London, the scene exploded, and now board gamers all over the world are getting stuck in.

The game we ran was Watch The Skies, written by the Megagame Makers. From the moment Charlie and I saw the video on SU&SD we knew that we wanted to run it, so, with our new board gaming group Little Wooden Houses up and running, we put up a Facebook event, bought ourselves the rulebooks, and got to work. It turned out to be a hell of a lot of work to put this event together! Even with an existing ruleset, it takes a lot of effort to get 50 people into one place.

Venue hunting turned out to be pretty difficult. We wanted somewhere with good transport links, parking, 3 or four separate rooms, and we had a budget of maybe £400, at a push. We ended up at the Aston Tirrold & Upthorpe Village Hall - a lovely place just outside Didcot, only a few miles from the station there. The bad news was that it was lacking nearby shops and eating establishments, but you can’t have everything. We didn’t really want all our players running off to eat anyway. Village halls always have this compromise, but they cost a lot less than city venues and usually have much better parking facilities for the money. My main advice on venues is to get started early: it can take than you think to find a good venue, particularly if you have unusual needs.

We used Eventbrite for tickets, which was a tough call. On one hand, it made our event look much more professional and enabled people to give us money easily and through a trusted website. On the other, it cost us roughly £90. For the first event we’ve ever charged money for, I wanted that professional look and I wanted people to feel that we were at least a little accountable, so we went for it, but perhaps in future we could save money by selling tickets some other way.

We expected the Watch The Skies rulebooks to be a little more easy to digest than they were. It’s an incredible game, but it’s very, very hard to get your head around how the whole thing works. It felt like it was written for a certain group of people: people who have played together and worked together before. These people clearly run a game once or twice, control making up a lot of rules as they go, and then throw the materials away. The ruleset is incredible, and super deep, but it’s also full of holes which the control team presumably roleplayed their way through. That’s fine if you’re used to the style, but we weren’t, so we ended up working our way through the rulebooks and rewriting the majority of them into language that suited us better. We probably spent as much time on this as it would have taken to write a whole new game! Charlie, with some help from Mike and I, did this pretty much solidly for about three months. Charlie being so heavily on rules was a mistake, I think. We should have delegated more, and we all should have been more involved in the writing process, because on the day Charlie was often the only man who could answer a rules question for us. I am really glad that we rewrote the rules, though - it gave us a depth of understanding of the game that you wouldn’t get any other way. In future, I want as many control as possible involved in writing the rules.

Putting together the physical components of the game was also a massive challenge that we didn’t account for. I did this more or less on my own and it ended up taking around 2 months of work: ordering models, working out the logistics of printing some 1700 sheets of paper, getting rulebooks posted out to everyone, and working out how the budget was going to come together to make all this happen. It turns out that the cheapest way to print is either to print one big document, or one small document many times. Our printing manifest included 50 documents of varying sizes and each required a different number of copies - if we had put the time into building one huge document and printed one copy of it, it would have been much, much cheaper to print professionally. Instead I did it all at home - this was a mistake, it took ages. It did work out much cheaper though.

It also turns out that gluing hundreds of miniatures takes a long time, and cutting foamboard with a craft knife is a skill that I don’t have. I learned loads in doing all this, but it took me an absolutely huge amount of time and I really wish I’d roped someone else in to help. On the flipside, lamination is really easy and in future I’ll be laminating everything.

It’s not all doom and gloom on that side of things though: I’m incredibly proud of the materials that we put together and I do think that everything we did was totally worth it. The Watch The Skies manual suggests that you mail the rulebooks physically and we were initially unsure about it, but I think the mailout was a huge part of the buildup to the game. We took a little time to build a front page that looked like a redacted government document and sent the books out in manilla envelopes marked with a red confidential stamp. I will absolutely include a mailout in our next game if possible: physical media makes a huge impact these days and I think in many ways the arrival of that envelope marked the start of the game for our players. Many countries organised preliminary meetings after its arrival.

Some bullet points on what I learned and resulting advice for the future:

  • Delegate more. Get people involved early and spread out the responsibilities.
  • Hunt for venues early on.
  • Spend lots of time on the rules - you can’t playtest them properly, so you probably have to put the hours in. At least a few control need to know them inside and out.
  • Plan to print few, large documents.
  • When arranging pages that will be cut up, arrange them into grids and leave as little border as possible.
  • Models and foamboard cutting take time and are hard.
  • Physical stuff is worth it - put the time and money in and make it good.
  • Physical stuff needs delegating even more than the rules stuff.
  • Get a shared todo list up and running early.
  • Make a list of everything you need to buy and print early on - this will help you budget.

A Weekend of Risk Legacy

We’re on the fourth game of Risk Legacy this weekend, and we’re a little tired, but we can’t stop, because this game is amazing, and we need all five of us to be in one place before we can play it. Simon has the benefit of placing his troops after me, so he can see what I’m up to. I place my HQ near a city in Australia, which I’m hoping to capture, along with the continent, to set myself up early. There is an advantage to be gained here, he realises. He swoops.

“Well, I have four nukes,” he says, indicating the number of wins he has on the board, “So I’m going to place… Here -”, he puts his HQ on the bottleneck of Australia, just one space removed from mine, “And then I’m going to eliminate you in the first turn. I’m sorry, but it’s the right move, for me.”

He’s right. It is. None of us had thought of that before. With four missiles, you can do that! How had none of us seen this before? How had we avoided such aggressive strategies for so long? The answer is simple: they weren’t possible before. Until now, none of us had the missiles to pull it off. You see, attacking on the first turn is risky (See name of game) - you might just lose everything. Missiles, however, change things: you can spend them to turn any dice to a six. One or two missiles can change things a little, but four? Four sixes puts the war ball squarely in your war court. I was ruined.

I can’t tell you how Simon got to four missiles. I can’t tell you why I needed that city. That’s how Risk Legacy is: it’s a board game with spoilers. It changes over time, you see: the box contains a series of envelopes and packages that you only open when certain things occur, and the board continues to change over 15 games of Risk. You would be forgiven for thinking that Risk is a horrible, horrible game to play, but Risk Legacy is fast paced and fun. It uses Risk as a vehicle for a story: Risk is the battles, but the war is played out through the table talk that ensues over the top of the game, and through cards that come from the envelopes you open as events occur in game. Each one is so tempting - “Open the first time someone signs the board for the second time”, says one, pushing you on to a second victory just that little bit more than, well, winning the game twice otherwise might. “Open the first time a player is eliminated”, says another, guaranteed to make anyone bloodthirsty.

“Open the first time three missiles are used during one combat roll”, says another. Go on, push the button - What could possibly go wrong? I find it hard to believe any group can make it through their fourth game (the first with three missiles in play) without opening that one.

What I can tell you is, four missiles ruins a man. I was, indeed, knocked out on the first turn, forced to spend the rest of the game trying to hold on to any territory I could in Europe. Simon, though? He didn’t win. He was spread too thin, then - his HQ an obvious target. As soon as his plan became known, Sam stepped in to do to Simon as Simon did to me. In fact it was Maisey who took the victory, biding his time over a long game, building up armies and cards, only to swoop out of Africa and collect three HQs in one turn.

The game has changed for us. First turn defeats are an option. Two games ago, the pace felt slower, as if we all knew our places in the world and had to wait for each other to overreach before we could make our move, but now? Now anything can happen. We are eight games in, and there’s a whole world still to play for.

What I Played Last Week Stag Edition Pt. 2

Here are the longer games I played during my stag weekend.

Suburbia

Suburbia

I like boring looking board games. I’m not sure why - maybe it’s that I think they must be so good they don’t have to worry about looking good. Suburbia takes the form of nothing but bits of cardboard: cardboard hexes, cardboard score sheet, cardboard money. There are a few wooden tokens per player to track income and score, but that’s as three dimensional as it gets. There isn’t even a board, as such: you build up the board out of hexes as you go along. Anyone who looks at it would be forgiven for never even giving it a chance.

Oh but if you do, there’s a world of complexity. This game very, very quickly becomes super, super deep. Your first few turns are quite simple, if somewhat marred by the fact that none of the buildings you can buy in the first phase are very interesting (do you want to buy some landfill for your town?), but very quickly you become bogged down in difficult choices and a heap of bookkeeping. Sometimes Suburbia is about watching your opponents, sometimes it’s about planning for the future when you don’t actually know what the future holds, and sometimes it is about just trying to keep up with what’s going on in your town. Definitely not for everyone. I love it.

Small World

Some board games come and go, and some games hang around forever. In my head, Small World is quickly gaining Settlers of Catan and Monopoly status in that it just seems to be everywhere, and everyone seems to have played it, and it never goes away. I’m not sure why Monopoly is still hanging around, but Small World is still here because it’s simple, it’s interesting, it is hard to solve, and it’s a lot of fun. It also doesn’t outstay its welcome, which is really important in a game like this.

To me, Small World is what Risk should have been: it has territory control, reacting to players, manipulating forces, and no hidden elements, but it doesn’t have dice and it doesn’t last all day. Our brains like territory control: we like seeing our units cover the board, we like collecting victory points as little tokens. Our brains also like nice artwork, and Small World has heaps of that. This is one of those games that’s just built to make you happy. I don’t know if I want to play it every day, but every time I play it, I love it.

Hanabi

Holding your hand of cards facing outwards, so that you can’t see it but everyone else can, is possibly my favourite mechanic. In Hanabi, the only way you find out what you’re holding in your hand is through other people using up hint tokens to tell you, but what they can tell you is limited. Herein lies an interesting problem: those who are more seasoned at games and have a better poker face will do a better job of not telling you about your cards than those who aren’t, so playing this game with a group of skilled players might actually end up harder than with a novice group. I don’t get to play Hanabi enough, because it’s quite a brain-intensive co-op game, and that doesn’t really appeal to a lot of people I play with, but I do really like it. I’d like to get “good” at it, whatever that actually means.

Terra Mystica

You don’t need me to tell you that the 2nd highest rated game on Board Game Geek is good. Instead, I’ll tell you not to play it drunk in a room full of loud drunk people. It takes about 3 hours to get through if you play it that way, and Simon and Marcus win because they are playing as a team which is definitely cheating and also they are the least drunk.

Risk Legacy

I can’t get over how Risk Legacy takes such a bad game and makes it such a good one. It is a master class in game design. We only played one more game (we’re now 3 in) but we opened another of the secret envelopes, and again, it completely changed the game. We all cannot wait to play it again. I simply can’t praise this game enough.

What I Played Last Week Stag Edition Pt. 1

I played 11 different games over the course of my stag weekend, most of them several times over, so it seems fitting to do a bit of a stag edition of my usual What I Played chats.

I have split this into 3 blog posts for the sake of your sanity. Here’s the first: party games!

2 Rooms and a Boom

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Every time I introduce this game to new people, I find that it surprises me in different ways. We mess with the roles a lot, we find new ways to lie, we find new tactics to catch people out. This time around, we saw an incredible move from the werewolves claiming masons in a game where there were already two masons, causing much chaos, and an incredibly well played robber into werewolf that no-one saw coming. I can’t wait for the expansion.

If I’m going to be critical, I don’t find this game worth playing with less than 5 people, and 5 is a bit of a push. That said, if you’ve got 5 people or less, play Coup instead.

2 Rooms and a Boom

Much like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, I wasn’t sure how 2 Rooms would ever work, but everyone has been saying it is incredible, so I was really looking forward to giving it a go. The first thing I have to note is that the quality of the cards definitely made a difference here - if you’re using the print and play versions, print them as nicely as you can, put them in deck protectors, and whack a card behind them if you need to, just to make them a robust object. Make the cards feel precious and the rest of the game will follow. That said, this game boasts a whole new set of tactics that I’ve never used before in gaming: sneaking around behind people as they whisper to each other, publicly reviewing your card, carefully wording questions to avoid giving things away - all kinds of comedy is possible here. Any bad game experience can usually be fixed by adding the right roles from what I’ve seen, so an attentive games master (of sorts - they can take part, so it’s not a rough job) will probably help with the smooth running of the game.

I’ve heard people say that if you play this enough it becomes a guessing game quite quickly - all the reds end up in one room, and all the blues in the other, and it’s just about shuffling the bomber and president from room to room - but after 5 or 6 games we definitely weren’t anywhere near that point, so it’s absolutely worth printing up and having a go on. The hard bit is finding 15 friends - I think it needs around that number. I assume with more it would get even better.

Cash ‘n’ Guns

The recent re-release of Cash ‘n’ Guns has seen a fair bit of hype in the circles I follow, fitting that wonderful niche of quick, fun, simple party game, with the added bonus of foam guns.

This is a perfect case study in how important physical board game components are. Hand each player a foam gun and, if your friends are anything like mine, you’ll get at least 20 minutes of fun before you even get on to explaining the rules. When you do get around to it, they’re simple, allow for a bit of tactics, and don’t drag on too long. You can’t ask for much more out of a party game. Sure, Cash ‘n’ Guns lacks the complex tactics of some games, but that’s not what it’s for. People who find social interaction games like Werewolf hard work, or just don’t have the brain power for that right this second, will probably still enjoy a round of this. I’m not sure that it has heaps of replay value, but it’s quick enough that I’ll never turn my nose up at it if people fancy a quick round.

Board Game Review: Terra Mystica

Terra Mystica

“Here, pick a race, don’t think too hard about what they do for now.” says Sina, handing me a thick stack of cardboard sheets. He is unpacking Terra Mystica, rated number 3 on Board Game Geek’s list, behind only Twilight Struggle and Through The Ages on their scale of board-game-ness. It’s a brightly coloured Euro game full of bits of wood, featuring absolutely no cards, plastic figures, or dice. I’m already sold. The groups of people you can choose to play as are on two-sided sheets of cardboard, each piece being themed to one colour. The colours match certain places on the board, marking that certain groups of people have affinities to certain types of terrain. Simple enough. I choose the nomads. They look cool.

It turns out that I’ve already grasped the main aim of Terra Mystica: put your people on places they like. From there the rules spiral out in a way that mostly makes sense, and given no other information, you can probably invent a lot of the concepts of the game yourself. Each player wants a different kind of terrain. The person who takes the most gets points. Each group of people have some skills that fit in with their kind of terrain in some fashion. The board has a complex mixture of terrain on it. You fight other players to take control of terrain. That’s the jist. A couple of notes though: no fighting, as such. Once you’ve taken a place, it’s yours - the fighting is about trying to get their first, trying to gather enough resources to build there, trying to figure out how to stop your opponent from getting there. Also, you can change the type of terrain in a place by terraforming it. So, you build stuff, you terraform landscapes, you build more stuff, you upgrade your building. That’s it.

Of course, that’s not quite it. You need resources to do all that, and getting resources is a balance of getting the right buildings to get the right resources, as well as a couple of pick-one-of-these-6-things mechanics that can give you the edge on players. The emphasis is on trying to do what your opponents aren’t trying to do, so that you win at something, rather than coming second in everything. It’s an optimisation problem across quite a few vectors, if you like.

Some groups of people are all about spreading across the map quickly. Some start out with a lot, but have a hard time rolling after that. Some are great magic wielders. Some can’t build boats. What’s neat is, each race is very different, with game-breaking powers that feel incredibly unbalanced. The balance, however, comes from the fact that everyone is unbalanced. You’re wielding power against power, and it feels great. My guys, for example, were nomads, capable of converting a tile to sand for free each turn. I became an unstoppable tide of sand against my enemies, but Simon’s dwarven people could tunnel under it, no problem.

There’s another lovely mechanic that might just make this game what it is: it is to your advantage to build next to people. Whenever someone builds near you, you can gain power, which is a valuable resource used for just about everything. In addition, some buildings are cheaper if they’re placed near someone else’s buildings. That means that instead of hiding in the corners of the map, you’re always out looking for trouble. Encouraging people to pull together makes for a far, far more interesting game.

It takes a while to get to grips with Terra Mystica, and the rules explanation isn’t particularly fun - it’s one of those games where you’ll have to just accept that it’ll be a minute before everything fits into place in your head - but it flows quite well and once the pieces do click, you can get on with the game very easily. It’s a testament to how well human brains can process tiny little symbols and matching colours, really. There are a whole heap of mechanics and they all tie together nicely, making a complex game that still feels reasonably easy to wrap your head around. That’s an achievement.

Daft Souls Talk Board Games

Hello! Just wanted to drop in this episode of a podcast that I rather like, Daft Souls. It's a video games podcast but in this episode they kick off with a chat about board game Dead of Winter.

They start with it, so just get listening, you don't need to skip ahead.

They touch a little on the topic of my last blog post here: while video games often provide a good story, board games provide a framework of rules and narrative moments which allow you to create your own stories.