PAXsims

Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Building a climate change megagame (Part 2)

The following series of articles was written for PAXsims by Ola Leifler, Magnus Persson, and Ola Uhrqvist. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


Playtesting

Play-test 1: Card-driven anarcho-communism

The first iteration of the game was card-driven and centered around meeting different needs such as housing, food and transportation needs, while also being about changing the way you fulfill those needs (from more carbon-intensive variants to less carbon-intensive ones). Much of the game centered on meeting needs and negotiating with local politicians as well as companies on how to do that in a low-carbon manner. We had 15 players, three different municipalities in our region along with some companies and regional politicians. Everything was definitively NOT ready, but we understood enough of what we wanted to do so that we could start playing the game. After a few rounds of learning how to fulfill needs in general, people started getting creative about the use of different transportation methods so that we ended up having an electric garbage truck from one of the municipalities helping the population with food deliveries. Not quite sure about whether that would have conformed to sanitary guidelines, but we were rather happy about the level of creative thinking the group had going.

On the whole, the initial playtest left a bewildering mix of impressions. On the one hand, everyone present very much loved the format and engaged in lengthy discussions about how to develop the game further. On the other hand, we had succeeded in reducing carbon footprints in a way that may not have revealed very interesting tensions. As one commented, as players we seemed to behave as an “anarcho-communist collective”. Maybe not what we’d expect to see. We were not sure about how to interpret the outcome either. The companies were rather willing to forego profits and instead help the population get goods and services to meet their needs at cost. The local politicians had few restraints on their willingness to spend or meet needs or expectations from the local population. The emissions were not important in providing guidance to the players, and were not even noticed as part of playing. We succeeded without having very difficult conversations. In all, our collective success and limited sources of friction gave us much to consider for our next iteration of the game. Was the game too easy? Were we just too few to create interesting social dynamics? Did we need to pitch business owners or politicians as antagonists to the overall goal of achieving a transformation to reduce emissions, or did we simply need stronger incentives or opportunities for people to act in their own interests?

However, one design decision that was made at this stage was critical, and influenced the final game version: the general population of our region, Östergötland, would be represented in the game by players who would be able to take actions and make decisions, not as abstract values and mechanics such as tracks manipulated by decision-makers such as politicians, corporations, etc. This decision caused quite a few problems in the later stages of the design process, but in the end contributed to add a layer of interaction to the game that would otherwise have been missing and possibly sets the CCM apart from other megagames. In a megagame about, for example, the Napoleonic Wars, there are players playing generals and the officers they command, but there are no players playing the actual troops fighting the battle – whether they march where the general orders them to or refuse to move is most often decided by a morale roll, it is not the decision of a player. In this respect, the CCM was designed to bring to the table the debate taking place in society and the sometimes – from a societal planning point of view – irrational refusal by the entire or parts of the population to follow regulations and use available options to create a sustainable future.

Play-test 2: Overwhelming complexity

From the first to second iterations, we made several changes to explore designs hinted at by these questions. For one thing, we introduced quality of life, as a general mechanism that would see players optimizing well-being for the populations in their respective municipality, where reduced well-being of a population would trigger different sorts of social unrest.

Two main game mechanics were introduced in this version: the Quality of Life (QoL) tracker and Climate Impact tokens. The idea for the former began as a perceived need to track the progress of individual players in a clearer and more comparable way – an attempt to introduce the neighbour effect, i.e. ‘if my neighbour has it, I want it too’. This functioned as a form of victory points for the population players, which was affected by the overall goals in an indirect way, as extreme weather events could impact a player’s QoL, but would not necessarily do so depending on the type of event and what community it impacted.  

Here, each population player played a social stratum of the population: the population player’s needs were affected by the generations in their part of the population – each player began with 2 or 3 generations, each of which aged between turns and ran a risk (represented by a die roll) of ‘dying’ of old age and ill health. The latter was represented by a tracker, and players had to keep track of their generations so that they got proper health care, either from the local authorities or by purchasing it from private companies. This was introduced to give players a sense of relationship to a part of the population in one of the towns or municipalities. 

There were quite a few things to keep track of in this version of the game. All the needs cards in this version of the game had been replaced by boards and trackers, and players had to run back and forth to get the right resources to cover the needs boxes on their player boards. Some thought had been given to this being an obstacle in a game of a hundred players in the same room, and so some of the aspects, such as housing, had been placed on the board beforehand and did not change much during the game. Overall, however, the complexity of scaling up the original version of the game became a major problem: over 4000 cards and 50 player boards was needed for a game intended to be played by an estimated 30 players for the playtest – a climate impact issue in itself, as was noted by the control team when spending two hours cutting cards and boards. Also, if all 30 playtesters had turned up, we came to realize that there would have been chaos in the bargaining to get the resources they needed. 

The Climate Impact (CI) tokens was tied to the overall sustainability goal, which had been rather vaguely formulated in the first version of the game. The idea was that each action would carry with it its own ‘shame pile’, as one of the team members called it, in the form of a pile of CI tokens that accumulated over the lifetime of the resource. As an example, a good produced in Asia, with a certain amount of CI token already on it as decided by its production method and mode of transportation to Europe, would be purchased from the world market by a corporate player and then sold to a population player. As part of the negotiation to sell the good, the corporate player could offer to sell it at a lower price to if the population player would also take with them all CI tokens – or else offer to take all or some if the CI tokens in exchange for a higher price. The idea of the ‘shame pile’ was for each player to stand at their player board at the end of each turn and take in the sight of the climate impact they had given rise to during the turn. This was intended to provide incentive to opt for products and production methods that would lead to fewer CI tokens for the player, while giving them tangible feedback on their progress towards a sustainable society.

The complexity issue became apparent even with fewer playtesters than anticipated, and we figured out that we needed a better way of managing the small communities in the region, so we thought that having groups of players collaborating in smaller teams explicitly for the purpose of a small community might be a way forward. Also, we wanted to understand if the game design could work with a wider group of players and decided to recruit playtesters from a broader group for the next playtest.

Playtest 3: Decreasing complexity and the breakdown of the market system

Thanks to broader marketing and better advance planning, the third playtest featured a much more varied group of players, with roughly 25 playtesters of varying ages and backgrounds that attended the session. This was the first time we encountered accessibility issues relating to e.g. English as the only language for rules and components to cater the the minority of English-only participants, the height of tables in relation to wheelchairs and other aspects which had not been considered before with our smaller group.

This version of the game was a streamlined version of the one used in Playtest 2, and thought had been given to decreasing the complexity of the game and focus on the sustainability goals while not giving up the idea of simulating the problems faced by the population players in meeting their needs of the various generations of the population strata they represented. Generations were made a more central game aspect as they provided population players with actions and income, and the population players were also given more distinct roles with role-specific actions, e.g. the ability to steal from other population players or increase the resources gained from certain standard actions. The number of players per population had also been increased from one to two or three to decrease the complexity and workload of each player, and as it was beginning to dawn upon the game design team that megagames are played by groups of players, which had been noted in Playtest 1, when individual players banded together to discuss things and make sense of situations. 

The political system, which had been absent in Playtest 2 due to a lack of players, was incorporated into the game through the population player’s vote cards, which allowed them to give one of three political parties their vote. The parties, which were represented by one or two players, between them decided on regional policy. Such policies included taxes and restrictions – the power each party wielded was decided by how many vote cards they had and their ability to make voters stay with their party. The population players could change their vote at any time. This system proved to be rather static, as almost all vote cards were placed with one of the parties and few players gave their vote any thought during the game, leaving the players of two parties to try to get people to change their votes, which was in vain due to them being fully occupied with trying to sort out all of their needs and actions. This may have been rather realistic, as some of the players noted, but not great in terms of game experience. 

Two other roles were completely overwhelmed: the local authority player and the corporate players. These were more or less assaulted by a horde of population players demanding all kinds of goods and solutions to their problems, and getting access to market and local authority players became so difficult that the game rounds ended before all players had had a chance to get to the front of the line that formed in front of the market table. Thus, this version of the game showed that it would be impossible to hold on to the idea of simulating the complexity of the economic system of supply and demand – even in simplified form – by moving cards and tiles from one place to another. This also proved to be the fall of the ‘shame pile’ system as it had been imagined up to this point, as it proved far too problematic to transport the CI tokens in the room.

Research also made a small appearance with the introduction of research players, which tried to get funding to carry out research projects that would improve production processes and other aspects of the game. As this had not been given proper thought, the main role of the researchers, who represented universities as well as private research institutions, became to distribute university education and discuss matters connected to the Swedish government, which was not represented by a player in this game, but rather appeared on screens with different kinds of national policy, which the politicians were to deal with. 

After the playtest, further playtests and the main game event was postponed due to restrictions following the pandemic, which left ample time for reflections and rebuilding the game. In May 2020, the game design team met to discuss a heavily revised version of the game, which relied on the ‘steady-state system’ to deal with the choke points presented by the reliance of population players on the market and local authority players to get hold of the resources they needed to play the game. The object of this was to place more focus on the issue of discussing the overall goal of the game—a societal transformation towards a sustainable society, which had been more or less completely ignored by players during Playtest 3 – again, rather realistic, but not ideal for a game such as the CCM.  

Even though we wanted to illustrate that as citizens we have to spend our time managing our own lives instead of considering changing lifestyles and promoting a societal transformation, this was an unwanted piece of “realism” in CCM. Both game designers and playtesters wanted an immersion in the decisions and dilemmas inherent in societal transformation. To simply implement mechanisms that deflect from those decisions because those mechanisms are in place in real life would not stimulate the kinds of discussions we wanted. In that way, we did not want a “realistic” game experience but an engaging, immersive and relevant experience. We realized the difference between the two at about this point.

Playtest 4: The making of a megagame

The fourth and final playtest was held in October and was partly digital – some players sat by their computers in the same room as the control team (the only restriction at that time involved groups over 50 people) and others participated from their homes over Discord. This was in preparation of the main event, which in the end were to be entirely digital, a fact that was suspected at this point in time. Just under 20 players and control team members participated, and the playing was done using a Miro board. 

During Summer 2020, the game had been reinvented based on the lessons learned during Playtests 1-3 and the lead game designer’s improved understanding of megagames after studying them more closely over the past year. Population players were assigned roles tied to age group (young, working-age, old) rather than social stratum and, together with a local authority player, placed in groups based on which community in Östergötland they represented. This made it easier for players to act as a group against other groups, but also gave each player an individual income and a special ability, which both made them useful to the group and put them in a position to negotiate with the group members to reach their individual goals. The same was done for the corporate players, the researchers, and the politicians, who were all placed in groups (the business community, the research community, and three different political parties) with both common and individual goals. A map of the region divided into hexagons and some rules connected to it made the impact of extreme weather events and actions such as farming and harvesting forest clearer.

The most notable change was the disappearance of the market system and the cards or tiles for various needs as this proved to be a major detraction from the discussions we wanted to promote through the game. The constant negotiations to fulfil needs were replaced by an abstract ‘steady-state’ system in which only changes were recorded, and the needs of each community were reduced to four areas (food, goods, transportation, and housing). Each area was represented by a track with six boxes: three orange (technological solutions) and three blue (changes to lifestyle). By investing economic capital (earned primarily by working-age population players and local authority players), social capital (earned primarily by young population players), and cultural capital (old population players) the communities could either buy technological solutions or make changes to their lifestyle to decrease their community’s CI, which was displayed on the game board in relation to the goal of a CO2-free society in 2050.

Most of the lifestyle changes were available from the start of the game as they involved reducing consumption, often at the assumed social costs (which resulted in negative effect cards being drawn to affect the community occurring at the end of turn). The technological solutions, however, were mostly unavailable at the start of the game and had to be unlocked by the business community, which in turn relied on the research community to make the necessary technological advancements. Thus, economic capital flowed from the corporate players to the researchers, who worked hard to research the technologies that would allow the business players to unlock the technological solutions on the communities’ boards, allowing them to be purchased by the communities. However, even with technological solutions unlocked, community players could choose not to buy it and instead opt to implement lifestyle changes to reduce their climate impact. 

In this version of the game, the business community was made up of corporate players without specific roles, which made them act more like anonymous risk capitalists than local businesses.

Also, in this version the communities’ choices of technology and lifestyle did not affect the income of the corporate players which we realized was a missed opportunity for conflicting interests.  

Regarding research, a single player handled research using a deck of cards in which they put research objectives that came into effect as soon as they were drawn from the deck (this could be sped up using economic and cultural capital to draw additional cards, increasing the chances of success), which made the impact of research very low, which may be a realistic interpretation, but made the research sub-game less rewarding. 

As for the politics, no politicians were included in this playtest and instead one of the control team took on the role of discussing with anyone who wanted to contact the regional/national government, regarding, for example, increased research grants. No vote cards were used as this aspect of the game design was at this time in doubt whether they would actually contribute to the game experience. In the end it was concluded that they would, as they were reinstated in a slightly different form in the final version. 

The game lasted for two rounds out of the planned three, and the general feeling among the players afterwards was that the game would be very interesting to play, which resulted in several of the playtesters joining the control team for the main event. The game design team felt that the game inspired the intended kind of negotiations, even though feedback from the debriefing session mainly related to the game experience rather than to its connection to the real world. At this stage, we felt we were approaching what we imagined a proper Megagame experience should be like, and we were feeling increasingly confident that we could pull this off for a larger audience.

Some of the major lessons from the fourth playtest were that we needed some tighter connections between different groups of players. For instance, all corporations (each being run by one or two players) were given specific abilities and goals that were directly related to either local production (farmers, private forest owners, local factory owners, etc.) or import businesses (food store chains, import goods businesses, import car dealers, etc.), reflecting the conflict between local supply and global trade. The final version of the game was to feature two main contentions as we had uncovered from literature on differences between sustainability visions: technological change and intact/growing economy versus behavioural changes to reduce the economy, and global solutions versus local self-sufficiency.

Also, the community players’ decisions to make behavioural changes was made to affect the income of business owners in the final version of the game and research became directly connected to the business community’s ability to make technological solutions available to the communities.

The main event: Playtest 5

The main event was held November 21, 2020 and attended (digitally) by some 40 players from different countries. From our earlier playtests, we now had a well-functioning control team and managed to host the game from a studio at the local concert hall in Linköping which had been retrofitted into a studio for digital events during the pandemic. Two of us, Ola Leifler and Ola Uhrqvist, acted as both hosts and play leaders. As we ended up with roughly half the players required for a full game, it was decided that half the communites on the map (four out of eight) were not to be played. The work leading up to the event included a control team briefing session held via Discord and session a few days before the event, and a few days before that the sending out of 4-page role and rules documents to players. 

The changes that had been made to the version used in Playtest 4 involved the completion of the business and research communities as outlined above, and the addition of the regional council (politicians) and vote cards. Further reductions in complexity of game mechanics had been made, which resulted in cultural capital being removed and social capital being changed to social change tokens, which represented the snowball effect of change begetting change in that the more social change tokens were used, the more the young population players received the turn after. The old population players were also given a single social change token, as well as the power to make populations (now tokens on the game board) into generalists that could survive without the support of modern society to bring this option to the table as well. 

Final version of the game board: overview.

The politicians were divided into three distinct parties and given the option to grant economic capital to aid the communities and the business and research communities in their efforts achieve specific boxes on their development tracks, which provided them with both incentive for negotiations with other players and collaboration between the parties.

The individual goal of the politicians was to collect as many vote cards as possible, which all players (not just the populations) had been given and were free to give to any politician at any point up to the penultimate turn. Players could not take back their vote once cast, so it was important not to make the wrong choice or sell out too cheap in negotiations with politicians; most players waited to the very last minute to give someone their vote. The vote was used in an election held at the end of the penultimate turn, which decided which party/-ies would control power in the last turn. As the votes spread quite evenly the party with the most votes still had to make deals with at least one party made deals in the last round, so this did not change matters very much. 

The outcome of the game was that the four communities very nearly made it to a carbon-free society in 2050. As expected, most communities did not opt for only technological solutions or only behavioural changes but went with both, which left the business community rather poor at the end of the game due to heavy investments in research paired with loss of income from the reduction of consumption following lifestyle changes. The differences between communities was mostly during the first round, when some communities (primarily the large ones) opted to wait for the technological solutions to turn up (or even actively invested in research to make that happen), whereas others engaged all they could in lifestyle changes (the small and medium ones, who had little economic capital). During the second and third turns, the former made many lifestyle changes too, likely because they had the capital to do so and did not want to take any chances, and the latter gained handsome deals from the business community, which was trying to expand business to make up for lost income.  

Final version of the game board: close-up.

After the final round and looking at the results, debriefings were held and afterwards analysed (see a separate report. From a game design point of view, it was concluded that the game may have been a bit too easy to ‘win’, as in there may have been too much economic capital in relation to the price of unlocking the development boxes. On the other hand, all parts of the game functioned as intended and there was a great deal of negotiation going on, and the general tendency was for players to become more and more comfortable in their roles with each turn, which suggested that the game is possible to understand and make sense of. This was also suggested by the player debriefings, and the initial confusion reported by some appears to be mostly related to the megagame experience being difficult to envision beforehand, as well as the all-digital format which made it challenging to see how you could engage in conversations with other players when not in the same physical location.


Ola Leifler is a senior lecturer in software engineering at Linköping University who, over the last ten years and upon learning more about the state of the world and the effects of how we educate, has formed a strong interest in learning for a sustainable development. With a special interest in boardgames, role-playing games and simulations, he now explores how they can be harnessed to promote more constructive thinking about global challenges.

Magnus Persson is a translator and academic proofreader with an interest in board game development who has been serious about games for as long as he can remember and only in recent years came into contact with the megagame genre and the concept of serious games. 

Ola Uhrqvist is a teacher and researcher in the field of Environmental and Sustainability Education with a special interest in using serious games as a tool to enhance engagement in and understanding of complex issues, such as environmental and social change. 

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