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?


Megagames – After action report – The Iron Islands

Music suggestion: ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the third run of a successful megagame series set in the Game of Thrones (GoT) universe. I thought I’d write up the tale of my day – partly to clear up my thoughts on an intense and rewarding experience.

But also because a good story just wants to be told.

This game was set in the era before the struggles in the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series that the book and TV series cover (as well as the two previous GoT megagames). The period covers a civil war in the Targaryen family between brother and sister. This story is told in ‘The Princess and the Queen’ novella and revolves around the issue of whether a first born daughter should inherit the Iron Throne over a son.

It is story of conflict, betrayal and dragons. All in all, everything you’d expect from the Game of Thrones universe.

And excellent material for a megagame.

The Iron Islands

I was on the Iron Island team. The Iron Islands are poor, rocky outcrops away from the riches and splendor of Westeros. So not the type of place to settle in and spend the summer.

The Iron Islanders were a unique team in the game in that we could reave. No other faction had access to this power – which basically meant we could quickly raid a province and take gold.

Further simplifying things for us was that we couldn’t properly take part in full land combat. No pitched battles or sieges for us.

All of which made it pretty clear how to play the start, middle and end of our game – reave! We began the game by raising troops & ships and following our team leader (the Lord Paramount, Dalton Greyjoy) in heading off south down the west coast of Westeros. His brother, Veron Greyjoy, took over rule of the Iron Islands as Castellan.

Except, we had a surprise when a dragon flew in and landed on our craggy Islands. Luckily it came with a message – not in anger. I never did find out what message the was but I do know that our priest Quaggo promptly took to the sea and sent messages to us that he needed prisoners – for reasons that he couldn’t go into.

Aside. The Iron Islanders follow the ‘old way’ which was religion of Westeros before it got displaced by the Faith of the Seven and the Maesters. We worship the Drowned God and honour our religion by raiding.

In the early turns of the game Westeros was at peace so drawing our fleet up off the coast of the Riverlands drew unwanted attention very early on. So we decided to visit the soft underbelly of Dorne. Dorne as a kingdom wasn’t fully integrated with Westeros at this point in GoT history. So we had freedom to reave there to our hearts content.

Except when we got there we realised that it was poor. You could put in a hard day’s reaving and all you’d have to show for it is sand. All the sand you could eat.

One member of the team – Jork – had pulled away from the fleet just before Dorne and went to visit the Reach – a rich and well stocked part of Westeros. He came back with plenty of glory – with methods unknown …. All the whilst the Dornish players attention suddenly shifted – it looked as if the civil war might have began.

Time for a shift in our attention too we thought.

More reaving – just in different places.

We sailed north back up the west coast of Westeros – although not fast enough for Quaggo who sent a storm to encourage us on our way. Another member of the fleet – Merya – turned away at this point and sailed off into the deep sea out of sight of Westeros – disappearing from the map to places unknown.

As we neared the home ports of the Iron Islands opportunity presented itself. Armies were on the march across the map. Westeros was at war. But, what was of particular interest was that the Lannister army had just left Casterley Rock – site of some of the richest gold mines in Westeros – surely then a place where it would be worth paying the Iron price rather than gold. The raid happened without notice and we slipped away with plenty of Lannister gold. But better than just that – without the protecting army – we were also able to take a Lannister hostage

Inspired by this teamwork the Iron Islanders began a new era on concerted work together to set the coast aflame. Merya returned from her journey – where she was rumoured to have travelled further than any Iron Islander – and together we spent our turns reaving the rich coast of the Reach and the Westerlands culminating in reaving the stronghold of House Tyrell – Highgarden.

At this point we had riches and glory. But we needed something else – a greater stake in this shared world. When it occurred to us – it was a shame to have only one port to call home – especially when there were Islands strung all across Westeros.

And when you think about it, don’t all islands have iron on them? And if they don’t – our weapons and armour are made of iron – we can just bring it with us. All islands are Iron Islands.

We spotted an opportunity in the south east – ‘The Arbor’. This was a relatively small Island belonging to one of the teams deeply involved in the raging civil war. It was also right next to Oldtown – home of the Maesters – surely another rich target for a reaving too.

Unfortunately, at the same time the Lannister’s were being surprisingly unprincipled and devious in the negotiations about our hostage. So to simplify matters we decided to sacrifice them to the Drowned God. I’m sure their bereaved partner got remarried though – what with the Lannister’s being renowned as wonderful wedding planners.

At this point the character I was playing – Theomore Harlaw – had completed one of his private objectives – the desire to build the greatest castle on all the Iron Islands (Ten Towers). With all this gold we had bought at the Iron price I could return and complete my life’s work so I struck up the coast back home. As a proud Iron Islander the fact that I had taken a wound in the last combat so was within a strike of death obviously played no part in my thinking.

The other reavers first decided to split between visiting Oldtown and capturing Arbor. However, it also occurred to us that Old Town is the home of the Maesters and their wealth of knowledge. Might there be something of worth there? We began to enquire and heard rumours of a way to summon a monstrous all-encompassing sea beast – the Kraken. It was rumoured that if anyone had information on this then it would be the Maesters. We started to try and gather information on how to get into the Maesters Citadel. But we must have been betrayed – because the Tyrells raised a huge army as we gathered near the city.

Our forces couldn’t fight a battle against an army and we could never have reave against such a huge force so we changed our plans and focused on the isolated Island of Arbor. Unfortunately the civil war must have been winding down because it seemed as if the Tyrells could focus on us. They began to raise a fleet just as we landed on the Island and started the assault of the castle.

Quaggo’s control of the elements meant that the Tyrell fleet sent out to relieve Arbor was battered on arrival. Nevertheless the Tyrell’s great wealth meant that it was a formidable fleet despite the storm lashing. An epic series of sea battles followed – which was settled by the closest of margins.

It came down to tie breaker of how good our captains were as Naval commanders. And in short, the sea loving Iron Islanders had won Arbor from the landlubbers

Control, Iron Islanders and Landlubbers

Arbor was renowned for its sweet wine – so our commanders could literally have the sweet taste of success. Roused by the great victory at sea we decided to celebrate by making some sacrifices to the Drowned God. The local army that we couldn’t use for fighting suggested itself. First we sacrificed 1000 of the Arbor men – and when we could – another 1000 more.

For the Drowned God!

But our time on Arbor was short lived – the Tyrells were beginning to raise another fleet. So our Lord Paramount decided that with gold, glory and conquest achieved now was the time to return home. Quaggo joined him too in heading back to officiate the wedding.

What wedding? Well back on the Iron Islands my character had returned and met up with the Castellan – Veron Greyjoy. I found he had been ably keeping the Islands safe – investing in defence and deflecting the attention of anyone who might have noticed how undefended our Islands were. He had also struck the delicate balance between saving money and only paying taxes when the government got insistent about it. Veron’s biggest problem had been who to pay it to – who was going to be the likely winners of the civil war? With the Iron Islands being craggy Islands out to sea we struggled to find out what was happening in the rest of Westeros. Communication between regions was meant to be by Maesters only. A Maester had visited for a turn but the death of an Archmaester elsewhere had meant they moved on.

The solution had been to realise that travelling Bards can get news to circulate. Encouraged by an appreciation of bawdy limericks the Bards regularly visited the Iron Islands. Perhaps this is part of the reason that some of our sea captains earnt their repute in nicknames such as ‘Rock Crusher’, ‘Starry Explorer’ and ‘The Terror of the Reach’.

With the Islands safe Veron decided that we needed to plan for the future. I decided to make another play for family glory and encouraged the Veron to arrange a marriage between my granddaughter and the Lord Paramount.

When the Lord Paramount and Quaggo returned we celebrated with the wedding ceremony – paid for with a fair bit of my reaving gold. Unfortunately, fatalities at wedding ceremonies are more common on the Iron Islands – what with drowning being an integral part of it.

Our Lord Paramount had died – but no worries – Veron Greyjoy became the new Lord Paramount.

And just as this happened …

Game end.

The room was quiet and the games story was retold. We found out that a civil war had been fought that encompassed all of Westeros. Whilst the seven kingdoms were now back under a strong Targaryen ruler once more several dragons had died in great clashes. The presence of magic in Westeros had thinned that bit more – something neither the Faith nor the Maesters were unhappy about.

But more importantly we Iron Islanders had reaved Casterley rock & Highgarden, terrorised Oldtown and conquered Arbor. We’d explored off the map, built the greatest castles in the Iron Islands, earnt celebrated nicknames and won glory and gold.

The Drowned God was pleased.

P.S. 50 points to Gryffindor for the idea of an ice sculpture.