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Megacorps Design Notes

Greg Costikyan discusses the design of his recently published boardgame.
Megacorps box cover
My boardgame Megacorps was released last week. It would, of course, be otiose for me to review my own work, so these are more along the line of design notes:

When Zev "Z-Man" Schlesinger called after playing Megacorps he said "It reminded us of an old Avalon Hill/West End game." Which startled me, because I thought I was designing a Eurogame. But on reflection, he has a point; Megacorps owes something to the Eurostyle, but also something to the Anglo-American hobby boardgame tradition -- not surprisingly, since that's what I cut my eyeteeth on.

When I started work on the game, I wanted it to require 3-6 players, take an hour or less to play, have a limited set of mechanics, and have very tight rules. To place it square in the middle of the Eurostyle, in other words.

And I did achieve those objectives -- but did not achieve another salient characteristic of the Eurostyle: theme irrelevance.

For most Eurogames, the theme is essentially arbitrary. Designers of such games are concerned mainly with devising interesting and original game mechanics, with the theme just an overlay, a bit of marketing fluff to dress the game up and perhaps inspire some attractive graphics. In other words, you could take the game, reskin it with a different theme, and no essential changes to the game would be required. The designer begins with mechanics and moves to theme.

In saying this, I want to make clear that I am not offering a criticism; a game like, say, Medici may actually have nothing to do with Renaissance-era trade, but that doesn't matter; it's a fine piece of work and an excellent game. Rather, I'm remarking instead on an aesthetic difference between the Eurostyle and the Anglo-American hobby game tradition, and I could quite as easily make a countervailing statement on the aesthetic flaws of the latter kind of game in light of the Eurogame aesthetic: E.g., too much dependence on randomness, the sacrifice of strategy to the simulationist impulse, and excessively long and often tedious play times.

But in this regard, I did almost the reverse of a typical Eurogame designer: Rather than starting with mechanics and moving to theme, I started with the theme. The mechanics of Megacorps almost fell out of the theme.

The original idea for the game came from Kevin Maroney, who, when we worked together at Crossover Technologies, proposed an online-only multiplayer game, with the same title and basic theme -- large multinationals competing and waging war with each other in a future world where nationality is essentially irrelevant. Nothing came of the idea, but later, looking for a boardgame idea, I recalled the title, and thought that there could be an interesting Eurostyle boardgame in it.

Clearly, the players must represent megacorps, the game must be economically-driven in nature, and there must be governments for the megacorps to manipulate. It must also clearly be set in the not-too-distant future rather than there here-and-now, since this is not how the real world works today. (Today, when governments want to take down even very powerful companies, they can do so with amazing speed and thoroughness -- vide Drexel Burnham, Enron, Lukoil, and Lehman Brothers.)

For manipulating governments to be meaningful, governments need to have an impact on the economic game, so we come to the idea of individual companies located within countries and the ability of governments to affect them, if not the megacorps directly. And to make that interesting, we need ways for megacorps to take control of countries from each other.

In a way, the basic mechanics of Megacorps almost designed themselves, falling out of the basic premise of the game. Or so it felt like; I realize that's an illusion. Years ago, I designed a space-trading game called Trailblazer, and after I had finished it but before it was published heard that Nick Karp was working on a game called Star Trader. I worried that the two games would be too similar; it was hard for me to conceive of a way to do a space trading game other than the way I'd done it, that is, as a microeconomics simulation with variable supply and demand curves.

No need to worry; his game was totally different. Trailblazer, too, had seemed almost to design itself; and doubtless another designer starting from the same theme as Megacorps would come up with an entirely different game. Yet the point remains: the theme of Megacorps informed and infused the design in a way that seems alien to the Eurostyle as a general rule.

Secondly, most Eurostyle games can be, somewhat unjustly, characterized as "simultaneous single-player games." That is, in a game such as Puerto Rico, the only real interaction with other players is a mild level of competition for some scarce resources; by contrast, most Anglo-American hobby games pit players directly against one another, with ways for them to directly assist or injure each other. In this regard, Megacorps is somewhere between the two: Most of the time you are acting purely to improve your own position, but the war and government intervention rules do give you a way to attack another player's position indirectly, and at least in the end-game, the use (or misuse) of this capability can be critical to the final score.

The fiddliness of some of the game's rules fall partly out of the same quasi-simulationist impulse, and partly out of a need to break symmetry. Thus, some of the Megacorps begin in control of countries with which the corporations I'm mocking are connected -- Mokia with the European Union, for instance -- and the event cards, too, try to have a game impact that actually has something to do with their name and theme. But symmetry breaking is also important; by that I mean that any game which begins with players in identical positions runs the risk that all players adopt identical strategies, which is often a recipe for dullness. By giving players starting event cards that offer potentially useful options, and by allocating some countries to players initially, the game begins in an asymmetric landscape, encouraging players to take different tacks. The risk of this kind of approach is, of course, that the asymmetry gives some players clear advantages or disadvantages relative to the others, unbalancing the game; I think I've managed to balance the positions reasonably well, but went through quite a few iterations to get to this point.

I'm aware that what I've semi-accidentally hit on with Megacorps -- a sort of synthesis of the Euro- and Anglo-style -- is not unique; 1960 and Pandemic, notably also by American game designers, have some of the same characteristics. But it occurs to me that this may be a fruitful synthesis, something that provides both the strategic purity of the Eurostyle and the color that only a meaningful connection to theme can provide. I look forward to working further in this vein.

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