Games, Planes and Automobiles by John Wilson

Issue: 25

Games, Planes and Automobiles
Designing Participation Games by John Wilson

The SFSFW and its members have good reputations for building participation games for use at wargaming conventions. This reputation is very well deserved. The Full Thrust: Star Trek and Godzilla games have won 'Best of Show' awards, as has Steve Gill's Animouch set up. I remember very distinctly the Shootist and the Wolf 359 games from Ragnacon 94. Certainly, it is games like this which attract passers-by and publicise the Society. Hard-core wargamers will come to a show to browse through the stands and take part in the competition games. Joe Public, on the other hand, finds these dull. The merchandise on sale is really only of interest to gamers and competition games (with very few exceptions) are deathly dull as a spectator sport. Participation games, on the other hand, are bright, attractive and fun. Dioramas, while bright and attractive, are very rarely fun and frequently put people off wargaming when they are told they can't touch by a snooty guardian.


Before the figures are bought, the landscape sculpted and the scenery painted you have to decide on the game itself. The SFSFW has an advantage in that it takes its inspiration from popular fiction. We can go places where no other wargamer would dare to go. Anime conventions, Star Trek conventions, Doctor Who... Organisers of these conventions will often allow gaming displays to be set up, and there are always people who are willing to have a go.

However, it is useless bringing along a game based on Star Wars to an X-Files convention. A participation game should be of interest to the audience it is intended for. If the game is intended for a convention devoted to a particular subject then base the game around a well known incident. This will allow convention goers to grasp the immediate point of the game without too much trouble. For example, at Anime Day 0092 a game was built based upon Operation British from Gundam: 0080. The game was very simple, mecha shooting it out at an Antarctic research base in an attempt to destroy a secret prototype. Even those unfamiliar with Gundam: 0080 could grasp the concept - big robots hitting each other.

If the game is intended to entice a more general audience then it is better to base the game around a central feature. The more unusual and outstanding it is, the better. Many games can be based around a single piece of scenery or a central model. However, if this is the case, a lot of work must be done to make it catch the eye. When I have built participation games for use at University open days, I have had to follow this line of development.

What's a saving throw?

The next item to think about is the rules used to play the game. These help the game designer to decide on the size of the playing area, the type of scenery, the models and the props that will be needed. Whether designing your own rules for the game or using a set of commercially available rules, remember - you are building a participation game! The rules should therefore be quick, easy to learn and simple to use. They should also encourage the players to get involved in a game.

When trying to decide on rules for a game intended for non-wargamers, the influence of chance should be kept to a minimum. Where possible, only one type of dice should be used. Other methods should also considered. Using cards, whether standard playing cards or customised game cards, to determine the outcome of a conflict is a good idea.

No matter who will be playing the game, keep the actual mechanics of the rules simple. Statistics should be kept to a minimum to reduce the need for record keeping by the players. This will allow games to flow smoothly and quickly. Also, if an unexpected situation comes up, it is much easier for the referee to 'wing it'.

I have based many of my participation games on the Space Hulk rules. As many gamers can testify, the actual mechanics of Space Hulk are very simple and easy to adapt. The use of a single dice roll to determine the effect of a weapon makes games quick and deadly. Full Thrust uses a similar concept, and I doubt that any SFSFW members would quibble with the popularity of that game.

Put Slot A into Hole B

Once you have an idea for the game and you know what rules are going to be used, the next step is to build the game. There are enough articles on how to paint figures or build 1/300th scale forts, so I shall steer well clear of these areas.

Participation games have to fulfil a number of criteria. First off, they have to be portable. Secondly, as the game is going to be for display, it has to look good. This often conflicts with the third of my criterion - robustness. The game will be played with and will have to stand repeated handling. Finally, this all has to be done on a budget.

Money is often the sticking point. Where possible, try and use club items or personal collections. This will reduce much of the initial outlay. However, only use what you can afford to risk losing. Game components go missing or get damaged in transit. Yes, this can happen to kit that is bought specifically for the game but it is less likely to have any sentimental value.

Even with the resources of a club to draw on, many items for the game will still have to be bought. Always make a list of what you need for the game and then stick to it, religiously. That way, you will not get distracted from your mission to spend. If any components can be scratch built, then by all means do so. Scratch building saves money and often provides unique items. I will not make any suggestions about where you go to buy the stuff. Every wargamer I know has their own favourite haunts and suppliers. I have often used Comet Miniatures as they have an extensive range of model kits and have a bargain basement where many bits and pieces lurk.

When building a game, ensure it can be easily packed away for transportation. Where possible, use modular game boards to play on. Scenery should be light and, if possible, pack together into the minimum of space. Don't take this too far as the game will also often have to be assembled quickly. Complex 3-D jigsaws are a no-no.

Colour schemes should be simple. Not only will this make the initial construction easy, but it will also make emergency repairs simple to perform. Try to use colours straight from the pot. A good, simple paint job is very effective. Detailing should be kept to a minimum unless it is absolutely essential or can be kept to well defined areas. Any “special” models will then be doubly outstanding.

Bear in mind, game building is a lonely and difficult task. Try to make any project a social event. Not only will the work get done faster, but it will be less boring. If necessary, bribe people to help out. Snacks, booze, sexual favours - whatever. When you are this far on in the design process you will find that you have invested too much of your own effort just to drop it all.

The Big Day

The game is built. You have arrived at the con, put it together and (mirabile mirabilis) everything works. Now you can sit back and wait for people to flock to participate in the fruit of your labours. Cute, but WRONG! I have spent hours on stalls watching people drift past. I have been the person who walks past you three times in an hour, but doesn't even bother to glance over. There is still one essential item left in the design of a participation game - the referee.

As the referee, not only will you be running the game, but you will have to attract people to it and keep them interested. You will have to be a combination barker cum commentator cum font of wisdom. This is not an easy task and requires a strong voice, a good wit and a well prepared script.

Because assault is illegal, you will have to persuade people to take part in your game. A good trick is to have a few friends start playing. This will attract rubbeneckers and kibbitzim. While these are annoying in clubs, they are the fife and soul of a participation game. Offer them seats and quickly ease them into the action.

A running commentary will work wonders. It helps the participants to really get involved. Encourage them to contribute. Silly accents, gestures and sound effects can make a game an experience. Also, if the players show a bit of imagination and step outside the rules of the game, let them get away with it. It shows they are enjoying themselves and (even better) are trying to come up with ideas of their own. However, make sure you have a way of dealing with people who get out of hand. Rules lawyers should be dealt with, preferably in a way that makes them appear ridiculous to the rest of the players. Steve Gill has the best method of doing this that I have seen. Instead of arguing back, he just replaces their figure with one he has specially built for just such an occasion. This figure is a pile of paper with one hand poking through the summit. The player who has this inflicted on them misses their next go as their character is buried beneath the litter. Usually it only needs to be used once to drive the message home. I use a super-deformed Alien to chase the offending player's units around the board until they shut up.

A Last Word

Never, ever build a participation game in an attempt to try and win an award. You will be sorely disappointed if you don't win. Instead, build your (it is yours) game as a labour of love. That way, your best thanks will be when people play it.