PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

Last year (in)famous megagame designer Jim Wallman made a trip to frozen Montréal to run New World Order 2035 at McGill University, with some one hundred or so players taking part. It was a big success.

Last week Jim made a return visit for War in Binni, this year’s McGill megagame. Again, approximately one hundred persons participated in the day-long event, most of them McGill students. The event was cosponsored by PAXsims, the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM), and the McGill Political Science Students’ Association (PSSA).

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War in Binni has been run several times before elsewhere, notably at last year’s Connections UK interdisciplinary wargaming conference at King’s College London. The theme of a civil war in a fictional country in West Africa was of particular interest to students, including those in my POLI 450 and POLI 650 peacebuilding courses. We’ll be running our own even larger, week-long Brynania civil war simulation later in the term. However, unlike the Connections/KCL version, the game at McGill included a significant “weird science” component, with a touch of both Lovecraft and Indiana Jones. The event was held in excellent space New Residence Hall, including a large ballroom, two conference rooms, a foyer (and cloakroom), an integrated audio and data projectors. The staff were helpful as ever.

I should also note that almost half (41%) of our our participants were women—and, moreover, they all paid to participate. This was similar to last year. Those who argue that women are somehow uninterested in political-military gaming clearly have no idea what they are talking about.


We started off with a basic orientation to the game from Jim. Rules and maps had been posted online before the game, and individual role briefings had been emailed to all players about a week beforehand.

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Action at the map table, as the Clewgists celebrate a victory.

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Map Control (me), pointing.

While the government, various rebel groups, and regional actors vied for territory and influence, shady international arms dealers sold weapons to the highest bidder, the UN Security Council met in emergency sessions, and humanitarian aid workers struggled to cope with a growing flood of refugees.

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The United Nations Security Council meets.

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Heavy fighting takes a heavy toll on civilians, forcing many to flee.

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The Clewgists mourn the destruction of their sacred grove by a rival militia.

Three archaeological digs were also at work in the war-torn country. These soon uncovered increasingly unusual findings. These included evidence of alien technology, and various occult items with mysterious powers.

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An archaeologist briefs the French ambassador.

Little did the players know that, hidden among the participants were a small group of secret cultists. This group managed to obtain key objects from the digs, perform a dark ritual, and summon an Elder God of unspeakable power. The huge creature appeared atop Mount Clewg, and began to rampage through the country, destroying everything in its path.

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An extradimensional creature appears atop Mount Clewg.

The international community responded with a barrage of cruise missile attacks and bombing strikes, but these did minimal damage. Researchers at McGill University utilized one of their archaeological finds to slow the thing’s progress. Regional powers revealed that they had all been secretly researching WMD, and unleashed chemical weapons and radiological missiles. However it was the Kingdom of Gao, in alliance with Christian and Muslim rebel groups and the local Clewgist tribal insurgents, that inflicted the most damage, severely damaging the creature with an alien death ray before a suicidal charge by the Clewgists destroyed the evil abomination.

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Militias (and Gao) unite to destroy the terror.

As all this was happening, the government of Binni—afflicted by plummeting domestic political support and the assassination of the President—finally agreed on peace terms with the main opposition alliance. Peace had come… but at what cost? And what does the future hold for Binni?


Overall I thought that Binni went even better than NWO 2035. There were, perhaps, several reasons for this.

First, everyone seemed to internalize their roles very quickly, and game play was generally credible and “realistic” (or as realistic as it can be in a game featuring alien technology and an Elder God).

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The Global (later, Galactic) News Network at work.

Second, our Global News Network team did a terrific job of getting information out to the players. The GNN website contained a few in-depth stories, most of which had been written in advance by the Control team to be released during the initial game turns.  Most news was carried on the GNN Twitter feed. Special “breaking news” announcements were made over the audio system, sometimes only a few seconds after the event had occurred. The GNN team also did an excellent job of investigative reporting, using covert reporters and in-country teams to considerable effect. They resisted the temptation to report rumours as facts, or believe or print everything they were told.

I know from previous large games how important the media role is. It also requires players who understand their importance in the game process (acting, in some senses, as an element of the Control team), and enjoy acting as journalists: verifying, investigating, uncover secrets, and breaking important stories.

Third, War in Binni had fewer rules than NWO 2035, and game systems were generally more simple and straight-forward. This allowed players to focus on role-playing and interaction rather than understanding rules, and facilitated the sort of creative, emergent gameplay that is at the heart of a successful megagame.

We’re already thinking ahead to next year’s game…

3 responses to “Reflections on (another) McGill megagame

  1. Mark Flanagan 19/02/2017 at 8:05 pm

    Certainly a different take from the 2016 KCL “Binni Crisis”! Rather disappointing performance from the Elder God it has to be said, world domination was the very least I expected ;)

  2. Jon Casey 24/02/2017 at 6:35 am

    As a matter of interest, were the players informed that there was a ‘weird science’ element to this game when they signed up? I would have been rather hacked off to have that thrown in without warning if I’d paid to participate in a game that ostensibly sought to simulate a realistic crisis.

  3. Rex Brynen 24/02/2017 at 10:49 pm

    It was hinted at in the advance materials, and I suspect many players guessed given last year’s game.

    Interestingly the core POL-MIL stuff was in no way adversely affected by the archaeology/weird science element. Indeed, I thought it was truer to real life than the Binni game at Connections UK, where there was no weird science element and the players were generally wargamers and national security professionals. A fairly large proportion of the students have done coursework on civil wars, field research on conflict-affected countries, or participate in model UN, which may have upped their insurgency and diplomatic game.

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