Once again, Lisa and I gathered a group of our friends and set out on a megagame adventure.
If you’re wondering what a megagame is, I described the concept in more detail a few months back.
With a massive nine person team, we journeyed across the galaxy to the alien land of Long Island to play Contact Light.
Ironmark Games, the creators of Contact Light, described the game:
Contact Light finds humanity in a desperate search for a new planet to call home as our failing resources are nearing their end. Unfortunately, we aren’t the only ones who are looking. You will take on the role of beings — human or otherwise — desperate for a much-needed solution to the problem of survival, all while being forced to compromise, collaborate, and compete with each other.
Each player will be on one of six teams, each of which will be important to the survival of their species, with many challenges to overcome. Some will traverse The Unexplored Galaxy to find a planet where life might thrive, while trying to gather enough resources to continue their mission. Some will be working in government, coordinating exploration and diplomatic efforts so that civilization doesn’t collapse after — or before — relocation. You’ll negotiate, scheme and plot with 55 other players to maximize your chances of survival.
Our team (known as a “House”) played The Readers of Xiu, a not-so-vaguely East Asian-inspired team that followed the nonexistent writing of a man named Xiu. In our case, we were really following the works of Sun Tzu… Because Sun Tzu is my copilot.
In keeping with our East meets West in space theme, our team opted to dress as space cowboys à la Firefly… And some of us or may not have spent a significant portion of our trip to Long Island learning Mandarin profanities.
Ironmark Games structured the teams in a split fashion: a five person Capitol Team and a four people Exploration Team. One group was the government; the other group manned a spaceship.
I don’t believe every House was composed of nine people who were connected to one another and I think our unified team gave us a bit of an edge.
Head of House
During our last megagame, I was the Chinese foreign minister. This time around I led the team as Head of House.
In my day job I regularly run all-day fact finding and design meetings with my clients. Sometimes these end up being multi-day meetings many timezones away. I have focus for days, I’m good at leading groups of people, and speaking really is my thing. I say this not to brag, but to give weight to my next statement:
Managing my team effectively, while fun, was profoundly exhausting.
I had four smart, assertive people constantly looking to me for direction; I had to account for the multitude of game dimensions, manage communication with our Exploration Team, and control the politics with the other Houses. And I had to do all of this while feeling my way through game rules that ranged from vague to non-existent.
My role was at its most fun when I was focused on pushing my team’s agenda; either through my own people, or through politicking with other teams.
I could not have done this without my deputy, Jess. She held down so many facets of the game. She shined the brightest when it came to dealing with the aliens, and teaming up with the blue team’s deputy for a special assignment (that I don’t want to spoil because it was too damn cool).
Our Exploration Team was made of engineers and people who know how to work a system. Lead by our Watch the Skies head of state, now Captain Lindsay, our explorers Drew, Thea, and Peter owned the friendly skies.
Using board game tactics, they set up mines that fed the Capitol Team resources and sourced alien artifacts that bestowed us with additional powers.
Our Exploration Team figured out how to manipulate these systems early in the game. Halfway through, we had so many resources coming in that the Game Controller who had to distribute resources seemed comically frustrated when he had to pay us each turn.
It reached a point where I stopped managing the resources and just left them in piles on the table for my teammates to self-serve as needed. I literally ran out of things to spend money on. I understand why the ultra-rich buy some really strange shit. If I could have spent my silly fortune on a Bond villain yacht, I would have.
The artifacts were one of the coolest elements of the game, but they were all discovered by lunch time (leaving Thea, Exploration Team’s science officer, without a whole lot to do).
High Admiral Lisa
Lisa took on the role of High Admiral, commanding our armed forces, managing the construction of facilities, communicating with the Exploration Team, and leading the evacuation of our people to a more healthy planet.
We played as pacifists because there wasn’t a lot of war in the game, there was no clear benefit to war, and because we didn’t have a clue how combat would work. All in all it seemed like an unnecessary risk.
Her game was dice-based… a game of chance.
The only time I threw dice in this game it failed… So I elected to avoid that and encouraged my military adviser to do the same.
My former coworker and longtime friend José played as our senator.
He represented our position on bills in the Senate; introduced legislation; and played some kind of table top game of influence that greatly impacted the High Admiral (but they only figured out that their games required coordination around turn three or four).
José did a great job of controlling the politics and pushing my vision. He also really seemed to enjoy embodying a statesman.
Each Senator had influence points to spend on either legislation or the influence game. Unfortunately, this meant that most senators were throwing their energy into the influence game, not the legislation… Thus it was very awkward to push a serious legislative agenda.
This was most pronounced during my attempted coup d’état to become president of the planet. If my understanding of what happened was accurate (and it may not be), four of the five houses supported me… But the incumbent house skipped playing the influence game that turn and overran the vote. It ended up being something like 24-6 in favor of the incumbent even though they had zero outside support.
Four turns worth of politicking went down the drain for absolutely nothing.
It would have been better if each team had one vote on bills.
A lack of stakes
Our first megagame, Watch the Skies, introduced a new crisis for the planet to face each turn.
The foreign ministers would have to convene in the UN, debate solutions to the problem, and then cough up the resources needed to see the problem through… Or something bad happened.
This kind of mechanic was noticeably missing from Contact Light and the effects reverberated throughout the entire game.
The lack of crises made the Senate’s job pretty hollow. It became about appeasing the other teams so that they would appease you when you pushed some self-serving, unimportant legislation (kind of like real life).
It also meant that every team was free to pursue their agenda without incident (unless they did something stupid and pissed off another team).
Most importantly, it diminished the narrative of the game. We were all supposed to be existing on a dying planet that was so close to the end that our collective goal was to flee the necrotic rock. At no point during the game did I feel like our planet was dying… And this was a real miss because we could have had some spectacular crises on a near dead planet.
Similarly, the Exploration Team’s job became very mechanical and monotonous. They had one or two crises in space, but they should have had a dozen to keep things interesting and disrupt their rhythm.
Contact Light had a victory point system that ultimately determined the winners (spoiler… we won!).
Victory points added a dimension that megagames need, but it created some strange behavior.
Back when we played Watch the Skies, there was no points system, and the game ultimately ended with the worst performing teams nuking the world (which really pissed off our team). Watch the Skies doesn’t really have winners and losers in the traditional sense, it more or less ended with a melancholy realization that humans do really stupid things, even in games.
The points system in Contact Light gave us something to strive for. However, I had a limited understanding of what would score points for us… So I dumped every resource I could into accumulating the points I knew I could get. Our science chief, Amanda, was very well-funded… And she kicked a lot of ass.
Additionally, every team had a secret objective. Every single team achieved their secret objective with the exception of one (and that objective could have easily been achieved if the guy who was trying to achieve it didn’t ham it up on his character’s psychopathy… which was very entertaining).
The bottom line was that aside from technology development and our secret objective, I had no clue what actually scored all of our points.
I felt good about our victory because I knew we played the game’s systems really well, but part of me wishes that the points were either completely invisible to the players, or fully transparent. We were all happy that the point system was there, but felt like we needed a stronger gasp on it.
The folks who ran our game worked their asses off. I have so much thanks for them. They made the game what it was, as much or more than the players.
I think their job was too hard and there weren’t enough of them to make it as enjoyable as it should have been for them.
We received resources at inconsistent times. I often found myself antsy for the glut of resources that I knew were coming because I couldn’t actually get my turn going until they arrived. It became tedious.
We needed better game mats to help allocate resources appropriately.
Control needed a better way to distribute resources.
The rules must be easier to understand, follow, and enforce.
Control were at the best when they felt like players who had extra power, and a strong grasp on the game. They were only able to achieve this at the points where they truly had things under control. I’d love to be able to enjoy the game with them instead of feeling like they were stuck chasing us.
Enjoyment was role dependent. Different teammates had more/less fun at different points of the game.
I experienced a parabola of fun. The early game was kind of painful because I had no idea how to do my job. The mid game was incredible because there was so much for me to do and I knew how to do it. Then my late game became boring because I had already plotted out the strategy and it took very little effort to act on it.
The Exploration Team had a ton of fun in the beginning of the game, but their job became increasingly repetitive as time wore on.
High Admiral Lisa just kept getting better and having more to do. She enjoyed each turn more than the previous one.
The bottom line is that everyone enjoyed the game a lot, but there were points in time where it sagged a bit.
The artifacts were awesome.
The Exploration Team and the Capitol Team could only communicate through written mail. That was brilliant.
The ending was way too clean.
We had no idea how strong our Exploration Team’s ship was in combat.
It was way too easy for one player from one team to unilaterally screw up everyone’s game, and there weren’t any clear mechanics to unscrew some of the silly stuff that these people imposed on us.
The other players
I love megagamers. It takes serious commitment to spent six to eight hours in a game like this on a weekend.
I had an absolute blast playing politics with the other teams, some of whom I knew from Watch the Skies, but most of whom I had never met before.
It’s incredible seeing all of these strangers work together, while quietly (and not-so-quietly) pushing their own agendas.
It’s a fun social experiment and I feel like I learn a lot about myself and my friends while we’re in it.
The bottom line
This was the first time that Ironmark Games ran Contact Light and this was their very first megagme. I picked at a lot of details, but we still had a wonderful time.
They have created a rich universe that, with some refinements, will be continuously fun and incredibly dynamic. I know those changes are coming, and when they do, Contact Light will grow into a complex yet clear system that lets players wander around the universe confronting the limits of their own humanity.
The stuff that happens in a megagame stays with you. It’s a lot more profound that it probably should be.
I will happily play Ironmark’s next megagame… And if this kind of crazy adventure/ social experiment sounds like something you’d enjoy, then you should too.