Playing Urban Nightmare: A live-action thirty-player semi-co-op zombie-outbreak simulation game

“So let me get this straight, chief,” I said, 5 minutes in to my first day as the Chief of Staff at the State Police, “you’ve had no formal training and have only been in the job for a month; and the only reason you hired me and the deputy is because nobody with any real experience actually applied.”

“That’s about right. But things are pretty quiet round here! We’ll have plenty of time to pick things up as we go along.”

Little did they realise that in nearby Romero City, a zombie outbreak was already beginning…

***

This was no ordinary game. This was Urban Nightmare, a Megagame with 30 odd players representing 8 key organisations, simulating a realistic official response to a zombie outbreak over 6 hours, representing 3 days of time in the game. It was intense, challenging, and eye-opening in so many ways.

At the time of writing, another run of this game is planned for Leeds on Saturday 17th November 2012 – you can read about it and sign up here (although you’ll need to do so pretty quickly). I’ll give an overview of what Megagames are, and write up my experience of Urban Nightmare below – keeping spoilers to a minimum.

What are Megagames?

The strapline of the Megagame Makers website calls them ‘multi-team multi-player wargames’. The closest similar game I’ve seen is Diplomacy, but megagames investigate the mechanics of conflict and co-operation at a much deeper level. They are large (20-50 players), and long (lasting one or two days).

I first came across the idea through a friend-of-a-friend, who described a megagame he’d designed to recreate the key factions and power mechanics of a certain period of Anglo-French history. He was particularly excited that at one point some players tried to stage a coup, but it failed – and this was exactly what happened in the actual historical period!

Obviously, I found that idea very exciting.

Megagames explore a whole area of gameplay I’ve never seen before: a very large number of players making a lot of tactical and strategic decisions, over a long period of time.

It seems like a way to gain genuine understanding of how organisations and society work. If a historically accurate failed coup can naturally arise with the right starting conditions and game mechanics, this seems like a genuinely powerful way to simulate and understand such systems.

Unsurprisingly, this is not a new idea: it’s part of the spectrum of military simulations which have been tried in one form or another for as long as humans have been making war.

On the downside, it superficially sounds a bit dry and difficult for the players. The introductory leaflet I received upon registration listed some of the key things players enjoy about these games:

  • There’s no score, which is great for players that are averse to highly competitive games
  • To a large extent you set your own goals – you may want to try to do outdo your historical counterpart, or just find out what happens if you stick to a particular strategy that you’re curious about
  • You feel like you’re part of momentous events, in a way that smaller scale games with momentous event themes (like Pandemic) can’t achieve.

***

“Was that someone from the city police? What did he want?”

“They had a few trouble-makers this morning, sounds like they were high on something. Took a surprising amount of effort to contain them, apparently.”

“Why are they telling us this?”

“No idea.”

***

How is Urban Nightmare different?

This particular Megagame, being concerned with a zombie outbreak, does not in fact directly reflect an actual historical event. The designer, Jim Wallman, observed that in most zombie fiction, the focus is on individuals, and the government seems largely useless – until towards the end, when the military usually comes in. He wanted to know: how does that happen exactly?

Brilliantly, he used as a starting point a megagame he’d made earlier that dealt with a similar issue (in terms of official response to an unexpectedly large scale civic problem), although I won’t reveal what it is because I think it’s best for players to be as unprepared as possible. However, there were quite a few key changes, and the version I attended (Saturday 17th March 2012) was the first time it had been run.

Urban Nightmare in brief

Players could select from one of the following teams: the City Police, State Police or National Guard; the Emergency Services, City Hall (Democrat) or State Governor’s Office (Republican); The Press, or an intriguing corporation with a major research office in the city called Necrotech. There was also a fairly large Control team, who ensure the smooth running of the game.

Brilliantly, through a mix of self-selection and active choice on the part of the designer working with the regular players, many of the roles were extremely well cast. In this case, the state governor and city mayor roles were taken on by people that seemed like they could have legitimately held those jobs in real life (as opposed to twenty-somethings with an abnormally large sense of entitlement), and three key roles at Necrotech were taken up by a trio of players notorious within the Megagame player base as being somewhat shifty and traitorous, who all turned up wearing suits and suitably sinister shades.

The game was planned to take place over 6 hours, with each ‘turn’ (in which each team collects information and makes decisions) taking 20 minutes of real time and representing 4 hours of in-game time. In total, 18 turns would represent the first 3 days of the outbreak.

My experience: briefing

After registering, I received a comprehensive briefing pack in the post consisting of:

  • Cover letter
  • Maps
  • Newbie Guide
  • Overview of Urban Nightmare
  • Team Briefing (state police)
  • Attendee/Cast List

I diligently read through all this material, and was only slightly alarmed by the repeated reminders in the newbie guide that it was only a game and some people might come across as surprisingly abrasive while playing, but this isn’t personal and in reality everyone is definitely really friendly.

I wasn’t too worried as I’d signed up with a friend (albeit one who hadn’t played a megagame before either), and we chose junior roles in the State Police, a team we anticipated wouldn’t be as critical to the co-operative zombie-fighting effort as most of the others.

The instructions also said that although we knew going in that the game was about ‘zombies’, we should try not to use this unnatural precognition in our initial choices in the game, and in particular we shouldn’t make any assumptions about the nature of the infection (if it was an infection) or how it was transmitted (if it was transmitted). I was very happy to do that, because I was really interested in the premise of the game: realistically, how would a zombie invasion play out? Quite obviously, in the initial stages, there would be a big barrier of disbelief. How does that barrier eventually get overcome?

My experience: On the day

I got to Anerley Town Hall at 9am, and relatively few others had arrived. I was welcomed by Jim Wallman, the game’s designer, I bought myself an all-day tea subscription from the service hatch, and started to put some faces to the names I’d already seen on the roles sheet that came with the welcome pack.

It wasn’t long before we had our whole State Police team together: myself as Chief of Staff, my friend as the Deputy, and a guy who had played one megagame before as the Chief – a quite significantly inexperienced team. Our table was set up with a state map, a city map, and and an overwhelming stack of counters representing our units.

***

“That was the city police again – er, apparently their HQ is under seige and they’ve lost several units.”

“Lost? As in killed?”

“Yep”

“What on earth is going on?”

“I have no idea. But we should probably send in a few units to see if we can assist. Not too many though, we’ve got a state to look after here.”

***

The first few turns played out much as I’ve described in the fictionalised interludes so far. The game then began to switch gear (for us), and it felt like we were receiving new information, discussing plans, writing out orders, liaising, and most exhaustingly making decisions just about constantly after that. Occasionally there would be a brief lull, during which time I could take advantage of my tea subscription.

Brilliantly, one of the ways we became aware of developments was through the media – a one-page ‘newspaper’ was distributed every hour, and occasionally press conferences were held in which key figures put out their official story (to some heckling).

I remembered that the instructions had warned: “The game can get very complex, try to remember that it’s just as tough for everyone” – and that was a useful idea to cling on to when it started to feel overwhelming.

If you want to attend the upcoming run and avoid any spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, but in any case I won’t reveal much more other than my favourite moment, when my friend said…

***

“If what we’re hearing is right, the City Police have lost half their units in the last 24 hours.”

“That’s… very serious.”

“I’m taking this straight to the governor.”

***

My Observations

Maps Maps Maps
I remember once reading somewhere “the map is not the territory,” which sounded like good general advice, but through my experience of video games where the map really is the territory, I didn’t internalise it. Here, the map only updates when you yourself update it, and you have partial or even incorrect information on how to do that. This was a fascinating problem, made slightly more difficult by the fact that our city map really wasn’t big enough to arrange the counters on it clearly.

Pacing
Once things took hold, it was incredibly hectic – more hectic, Jim later revealed, than he had anticipated. This created its own problems: the Control team had a hard time keeping up, and as a result turns began to start later and later, but with no big public announcement of when they were, so we had to frequently find someone to tell us what turn we were in right now. It seems like turns could be more efficiently communicated – if nothing else with a big flip chart with the current turn number indicated at one end of the hall (and ideally someone ringing a giant gong to announce the end of a turn).

A second problem is that I think you’re generally supposed to hear back from Control what happened to your units as a result of the instructions you issued. But they had such a hard time keeping up with everything that very often we’d hear nothing back, making it much harder to understand what was happening. Eventually I found I would more reliably get some feedback if I livened the instructions up a bit with phrases like “for the love of God” and “try to do [x]… if that fails, pray.”

Scale
Due to the above issues, it felt like the game was at the limit of its scale, but if they could be addressed (and if players could be found) it could get even bigger. In particular, just from the cast list and arrangement of the hall, we knew the game couldn’t really accommodate a major outbreak in another city within the State. But because we were interested in a realistic simulation, we as the State Police considered that a real possibility, and held units in reserve just in case. (That did come in handy later for another reason, but probably wasn’t a good strategic decision).

I really liked the idea of introducing a surprise element of the game though – a secret part of the hall we were playing in being revealed to have players and a map representing another city at the moment it starts to get zombied up – or maybe towards the end when/if our containment attempts have failed, a bunch of people in zombie makeup run into the hall and start trashing the place. But that’s probably just me.

Conclusion

I had read before about decision fatigue, in which it becomes hard to make decisions if you have recently made a bunch of other (not necessarily related) choices. This aspect of the game was so intense and so prolonged (near-constant decision making for around 6 hours) that I found myself unable to cope with most decisions for the next two days, which was a bit inconvenient, but also, fascinating!

If you have an interest in large-scale games, human-based simulations, or a very practical approach to zombies, I would highly recommend taking part. As I mentioned at the start, another run of the game is due to take place in Leeds this Saturday 17th November. You can find out more about other upcoming megagames, or megagames in general, at their site.

UPDATE! (13th April 2014)
I didn’t realise this at the time, but James Kemp commented on the progress of the outbreak from his perspective with the emergency services team in real time. So if you want to get an idea of how the outbreak played out, you should check that out! Follow that up with his post-script in which he switched to a Federal role and had a very different set of concerns.

-Tim Mannveille, of Octopus Fruitbat

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