PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Matrix game construction kit update #2

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I was in the UK this past week for a conference and several meetings, and while I was there Tom Mouat and I took the opportunity to run a playtest of A Reckoning of Vultures. This, as I’ve noted before, will be one of the sample game scenarios included in the forthcoming matrix game construction kit that Tom Mouat, Tom Fisher, and I are putting together.

I thought it went very well, both in terms of the physical game components (map, counters) and the scenario and associated special rules. We also received some very useful feedback from the participants. In particular, John Mizon has put together an excellent playtest report at his South West Megagames website:

On Sunday I was invited to “A Reckoning of Vultures”: a Matrix game designed by Tom Mouat and Rex Brynen [1]. The game is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia, where the President-for-Life is on his death bed, and various power-hungry factions are jostling to control important parts of the city so they can seize power upon his imminent demise.

His report includes a full account of the game, including pictures. His detailed assessment will certainly prove very useful as we tweak the scenario further—so, on both of both ourselves and the oppressed workers of Matrixia, thank you John!

I should start by saying that this isn’t the first matrix game I have played – I have previously run a matrix game called ‘Kazhdyy Gorod’ [7]. Kazhdyy Gorod is similar to Reckoning, in that it is set in a fictional city undergoing political turmoil and unpredictability of who will end up in charge. Players complete to win popularity and power, trying to improve their situation (and often try to win more potential votes if it is decided the game ends with an election). The players have a map and unit/resource counters, but other than that there is very little structure (aside from the standard matrix game turn order/arguments process).

 I think that A Reckoning of Vultures benefited greatly from additional rules. The separation into two distinct phases of the game improved the pacing and helped flesh out the narrative; the use of specific counters for money, units and influence allowed for more satisfying tactical thinking; effective rules for combat meant you could clearly anticipate the benefits of which units you have; and having key locations to control meant that players had clear objectives to plan around – whilst still allowing enough freedom in the space in between to encourage both player creativity and development of a flexible narrative.

I believe that the key locations also solved an issue that I had found in Kazhdyy Gorod. Namely that the rigid turn order structure and range of actions available caused problems as to how long each player’s turn lasted in the game’s time. For example, one player’s ambush would happen in the same round as another player’s political campaign, and things became messy and it was hard to gauge what was happening within the narrative. The key locations meant that most turns were players moving to and/or doing something important in one location – thus ensuring that the turn times felt uniform.

As someone pointed out in the post-game discussion, there’s a significant amount of random chance, especially in the final phase – but I think that’s fine considering that it’s a relatively short game. The random dice rolling at the end also means that the key locations are not the final decider – if that were the case then players would be incentivised to be doing constant mental arithmetic over key location control (and potential future control) in order to win at the end, which I believe would be stressful and tedious. Adding random chance at the end means you can just do your best when obtaining key locations, taking actions based on instinct and informed guessing.

As Rex pointed out afterwards, the final phase of the game is also meant to show how a matrix game, benefiting from its value as a simulation, can be used to provide starting points for other types of game, such as the dice rolling mechanics of the final phase.

I have three negative observations, though the first two apply to matrix games in general, so they’re more systemic weaknesses than fixable problems or mistakes.

Firstly, it’s clear that matrix games are not for everyone. This is true of any kind of game of course, but matrix games look like board games and sound slightly like RPGs, whilst actually lacking a large amount of structure compared to these. If you are intending to play a matrix game with board game or RPG players, be careful to manage expectations. Matrix games’ strengths are in their ability to simulate and to create freeform narratives, so they’re best suited to players who will be willing to engage with games in order to experience those. If your players are likely to enjoy games less when they lack a lot of structure, be careful with matrix games; relative to other games, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty about actions’ mechanical effects, and players will need to be able to move their focus away from winning sometimes in order to allow the simulation and communal narrative to work.

Secondly, as I know from experience with Kazhdyy Gorod, matrix games need a Facilitator who is both good at managing their players and comfortable with their knowledge of the setting. The freedom allowed by matrix games can end up leading to long debates about what will work and what won’t, or about what certain aspects of the setting are or aren’t. A good Facilitator needs to be able to be both flexible and firm – allowing player creativity and taking in arguments, but also knowing when to finish things and move on to avoid further debate that slows and muddies the game. Thankfully, Rex was a great Facilitator for our game.

The third criticism is more about the game as an event than as a game. The two main phases are of unpredictable length – which I thought was very interesting in terms of decision making during the game, but if you were planning to run this game, it might cause problems, as you wouldn’t know whether it would take under an hour to play or possibly up to about 4 hours. Depending on what context you are trying to organise this game in, this may be an issue. In a way, this can be seen in our playthrough – where the first phase was only two rounds long (about as short as it can reasonably be without someone deliberately assassinating the president), so we didn’t get to experience much of it, and this meant that there was less feedback on how well the first phase worked.

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