Megagames – The what and the why

I’ve now played two megagames. They’ve both been exciting and fascinating experiences that have pushed me out of comfort zone.

However, in order to do justice to the experience I’ve wanted to write about what they are and why they’re interesting to me. It’s been good to gather my thoughts (if not exactly condense them) because there’s a lot to say.

So what are megagames and why play them. Well …

 

What is a megagame?

Simply put it is a game on a grand scale. This is what marks out megagames as different from a conventional game. At the last game I played in there must have been approaching 100 people playing this game – it was pretty mega.

In terms of how they actually play I think the most accurate way of describing them is to point out that they blend many different types of gaming together and make it into a single coherent game. For example

  • Roleplaying – Typically you will be playing a particular character and normally you will be acting as that character in the world. You are not just represented by playing pieces on any of the game board but are playing your character role.
  • Boardgames – Parts of the game state can be shown on boards. Often there will be games associated with this. You’ll be moving resources around, activating powers, playing cards, spending tokens.
  • Wargaming – But of course conflict needs to be played out – whether it is individual characters duelling or tank formations clashing in Kursk 1943. The scope and realism varies but you can see how how historical origins of megagaming lie in wargaming.

Broadly speaking there are two main types of themes – historical and fictional.

The fictional games are set in created worlds were the players can experience life in that universe. For example, in the Game of Thrones III megagame great efforts had been made to create an experience would feel like the stories of George R.R. Martin. The story was driven by power, violence and intrigue rather than who was right or wrong. Player [characters] died, Kings and Queens fell and dragons ruled the skies.

The historical type games are not necessarily simulations of past events. Some are rooted in a real world setting but aren’t tied to specific events (like a pirate ship in the golden era of piracy). But all historical games attempt to evoke the atmosphere and the feel of the era in someway.

Of course, different megagames will have all these different elements in different amounts. However, I’ll touch on three common aspects of the games that seem most relevant to me

  1. Some games are more ‘operational’ – for which read focused on mechanics and how players can act. Other games emphasise roleplaying – how you attempt to make friends and influence the other characters. Almost all games combine these elements – even different roles within the same game can have a wildly different play experience.
  2. They work in real time – which helps increases immersion in the unfolding story. There are scheduled quieter times to regather (and eat & drink) but some aspect of the game is always in motion. There are no pauses – your opportunities are fleeting and danger (mostly) temporary.
  3. With more and more people involved in anything there is a stronger and stronger tendency to chaos. In megagames the chaos is moderated (but never removed) by having a number of very generous people who spend the game acting as moderators. These moderators are known as ‘control’ and they rule on details of how the game works and what happens with players actions (like a game/dungeon master). It’s a promising sign for a hobby when it attracts such generous minded people that they’re willing to give up their time for other peoples fun and games.

 

Why play megagames?

The simple answer is that with more players there is more game.

Megagames give space for people to be imaginative, creative and experimental with other people as co-creators.

There are ideas to play with and people ready to play with you.

But I think the most direct way of saying why megagames are played is to report back what people who play megagames say the attraction is. There seemed to be three common themes to the reasons given

1) Megagames are story-making engines

Many games are described positively as storytelling experiences. But contained within that compliment is the idea that they are limited to a single fixed story.

However, megagames can be big enough and bold enough to support multiple dynamic stories. Your experience will be unlike anyone else at the game, unlike what you imagined it would be and unlike anyone else that ever played it again.

Why? Because people are the most complicated, unpredictable and surprising element of any system they’re in. Megagames embrace that wholly.

2) Immersion and intensity

Even though a megagame may play out over many hours at their fever pitch moments they offer an intensity of experience up there with the greatest games can offer.

And it’s not because you can win the game – or beat other players (although who’s going to deny that’s a nice bonus). It’s because you are immersed in the game, the experience and the character.

I think the ‘hit’ that frequent megagame players are chasing is immersion in an internally consistent fictional world.

Some of the happiest moments in the games the players talked about where when they ‘knew’ how your character would have acted. They no longer have to suspend disbelief but instead entered an enchanted state where they can believe in this secondary world.

Tolkien wrote a brilliant essay about exactly this called ‘On Fairy stories’ which I highly recommend. This passage in particular struck me

‘To make a secondary world inside which [a] green sun will be credible, commanding secondary belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.’

I have no doubt a world builder like Tolkien would have played megagames.

3) Historical games

Some games focus on historical events and investigate the what ifs of history by playing it through again. For some players the draw of history is a powerful pull.

And I can relate – in my first megagame – Red Dawn we replayed the Russian Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. I’m fascinated by this dramatic and tragic period which mixes the epoch ending struggle of WWI with the bitterest – and arguably most important – chapter in the history of utopian ideals. And because the events played out ‘only’ a century ago there is a personal scale to it all. You can read people’s views and stories in their own words. Their world is both uncannily recognisable in its modernity but also deeply alien. The whole era is at once doomed, profound and relevant.

Anyway … in some ways it’s not so much that the theme of the game appeals but that the theme is the game itself. It really doesn’t make sense to say that the game – Red Dawn – was set in the Russian revolution. It is a replaying of it.

But crucially it was not just a replay – it is open ended.

History is often presented as singular, fixed and done. Yet no one in the past thought of their time in that way – it was the present. They saw other future worlds – inhabited by their hopes, dreams, fears and ignorance. A immersive historical megagame can show you some of these lost worlds.

This idea is hard to articulate in the abstract – but Machiavelli expressed it well

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

So not for the last time it could be said that megagames are Machiavellian.

This post game review from a megagame set in Renaissance Italy is a wonderful – and apt – example of just the idea that Machiavelli explored in his evenings.

Final thoughts

I realise now in writing up ‘final’ thoughts that all this is a hostage to fortune. These thoughts are far from ‘final’. I’ve only played two megagames so I’m new to it and far from being an expert. Maybe after a few more megagames I’ll have changed my mind – I’ll post if I do.

But I know why I wanted to collect my thoughts together even after two games. I’ve been inspired by the experiences I have had.

Because that’s what those games were – experiences.

Most of the time, most games are like most other games. But megagames aren’t. Each game has felt unique and full of energy.

Of course, I should also add that this energy is a challenge too. I’ve found moments in my two previous games too fast paced. The action can be frenetic and sweeping in scale. It can be difficult to know where to begin when there is so much going on.

Aside. Of course there are things you can do to make life easier for yourself:

But that frenetic energy is where the possibilities lie. Megagames can be exciting, memorable and open to brilliance. And that’s why you should play them.

And it’s why you should check out these other sources of more information on megagames.

Or watch a playthrough of a game

But of course reading is only an imitation of the experience. The best way to find out more is to try one.

What’s stopping you from trying one?

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