Watch The Skies: Organising a megagame

2015, Jun 08    

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.