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Code Epsilon : The Gamemaster Review

By October 30, 2015Reviews

Jon’s Review
In the Beginning
I entered Duxford Conference Centre worried about lots of things: was the venue big enough? Would the antagonist arrangement work? And of course: would the threat be revealed at the right time?

The Foyer
There was a buzz, a hubbub. My alphabetical arrangement of the player cards worked flawlessly. The fact that you could see a military aircraft on the runway was rather pleasing. The players moving to the first floor felt like a good way to start things off.

The Brief Case
The briefing delivery didn’t work as smoothly as planned, but seeing people receive briefings on their phone felt like a massive step forward; as a megagame player you suspend your disbelief over certain elements, but I hope that this method was really immersive.

For each instalment Sam and I have tried to raise the bar: at Episode One we tried out our own format with the antagonist role for live threat selection, player cards, electronic voting, an electronic newsfeed and a story-based briefing system. For Code Epsilon we tried an electronic briefing system, a new antagonist format and a venue that was slightly more aligned with the theme. Each game is a learning process for us and we learnt a hell of a lot at this one.

5 Stories High
We refer to ourselves as Gamemasters but you could call us story makers. I was really pleased with the storyline for Code Epsilon, and the developments the payers came up with didn’t disappoint, such as the King of Kentucky, or a state pumping all their oil into a neighbouring state to keep themselves safe from the colossal crustaceans. The discovery of the antagonists’ identity was great – we thought we’d be doing that as a reveal after the game had finished!

Each time we run a Mirror State event, there’s a particular sequence of events, which – much like a good story – plays out in a set way, but comprised of unexpected events. This makes it as exciting for us as it is for you. Each time we bring a fiction and you, the players, inhabit it and add to it. This makes us very happy. Occasionally we giggle when a particular event exceeds our expectations (and because an hour previously we were a bit nervous).

All’s Well That Ends Disastrously
The world will usually be pretty broken at the end of the game – that much we try to engineer – but I was really pleased with the ‘it’s about to kick off freeze frame’ moment that we ended on. We revealed the giant, giant crab and NASA responded by created a huge laser satellite. Obvious, really.

Coming Next on Mirror State
For Zero Protocol we have a superb venue, a suitably mysterious threat and a bar to raise even further. We’re just getting started…

Sam’s Schemes
Coming away from Mirror State Episode One I was elated. It had worked! People were genuinely having a good time and the mechanics that had been largely theoretical, albeit grounded in plenty of testing, seemed to work well.

Over the coming week, following discussions with Jon and off the back of player feedback a few strong ideas emerged for how the game could be improved.

1. Reduce the learning curve for new players and get the game started faster
2. Streamline some of the processes of committees, agencies, legislation and budget
3. By moving to a digital system we could speed the briefing process up significantly
4. Give humanity a better means of fighting back

There were a lot more ideas that emerged than these 4, but they were the ones I decided to get to work on.

Following the end of Mirror State Code Epsilon the sense of elation wasn’t there. Not because the game hadn’t been good, far from it. There were so many great moments in the game that I couldn’t begin to list them all. Rather I was accutely aware of the areas that, even with revisions after Episode One, still weren’t where we wanted them to be and that was a little dispiriting after what had been a solidly fun game.

In this post I’m hoping to give an outline of exactly what this means.

Let’s start with something that, retrospectively, was a slam dunk. The new player cards were intended to help newcomers and veterans alike get over the initial speed-up hump in the game. What we’d hoped is that after the game finished we’d decrease the number of people feeding back that they didn’t know what they were doing.

So, it worked. Not in a minor way either, in a major way. The hour or so of players getting up to speed that we’d experienced in the past wasn’t just chipped away at, it was GONE. Our plan had been to get the Antagonist plots rolling during this “quiet” period while taking the time to talk to players helping them feel comfortable and settled in the game.

This was a massive backfire – the player cards worked so well that we didn’t have the chance to do our own early game moves. The upshot was that very quickly we were running a lot further behind schedule than would have been acceptable by mid-afternoon, let alone in the morning.

Let’s then also factor in another new feature that worked well, although with room for improvement: legislation and activity forms. I liked these conceptually because I thought they helped sell the bureaucracy of government while adding a self-evident method for driving legislation and agency activity. In the last game we’d used Post-It notes, which was a bit scrappy, this new version was much better…

…that is, until we ran out of them. Before the election! We’d calculated the number of action requests and legislation submitted in the previous game, added 50% more and printed that many forms. Based on the amount of activity in the game we’d have needed 4 times as many. Basically, the players were on a serious mission.

So far, generally positive but then the wheels on the wagon start to look a little more wobbly.

We knew, coming out of the first game, that we were behind where we needed to be at delivering briefings. This is why I built a tool to deliver these briefings in real time – the ideal here was that players wouldn’t have to continually ask where their agent had got to, or whether their research was done. It would just happen automatically.

Yeah, so that didn’t work. The thing is, it should have.

The mistake we made was in not pre-loading the storylines we knew we’d use. That was around 20 minutes of solid typing time we conceivably could have had in place before the game started – time we could have used to keep pace better as the game progressed. The second problem we invented for ourselves was by changing the way we used moderators.

In Episode One we had one moderator covering the politicians, one covering corporations and media, and one covering the Antagonists and initial briefings. This time around we’d planned to have two “gamemasters” running the storyline with another two moderators on hand to act as interactive player guides. Due to the gamemasters (Jon and myself) rapidly becoming swamped, we reverted to the old model very quickly and a fundamental is now understood – a moderator is required for each group of players, and that this moderator has to be able to deal with the volume of requests they receive or pacing will falter.

The final piece of this puzzle, enabling humanity to fight back more effectively, drastically changed the last phase of the game. Instead of the United States rapidly disintegrating, with scientific and intelligence left a little inert as we saw in Episode One, all the agencies sprang into high gear, working with corporations for a major battle against the inbound kraken. The politicians, meanwhile, could only look on as their influence waned to a degree.

Neither of these scenarios is right, every player should feel empowered throughout the game, that we failed on that front in two different ways.

That’s the learning curve right there, so how is the game evolving again before its next outing?

1. Let’s just clear this up right away – briefings will be fixed. We have a secret weapon to fixing this that we’re not revealing, but it is elegant in its simplicity. All players will receive briefings on time, every time.

2. Increased agency and political ties. The new political committee system is better, that’s been proven out, but what we’re doing now is that at the start of every game week agencies will have to report to their committee to report in, discuss budgeting and decide the next actions. Agencies are the muscle of the political side of the game, this should not be forgotten.

3. Money means something. I’m going to leave this as a nebulous item, you’ll have to come along to see how it works out…

4. Better moderation resources. We won’t get to the point where briefing queues happen again, which means our moderation team can be more proactive than reactive.

While there is no item 5, we have a scheme for the Antagonist in Zero Protocol that we think will be more exciting than anything we’ve done before. As much as this is a very obvious tease, it’s going to be a megagame first. Nobody has done it before. Now isn’t that something you’d like to be a part of?

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