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A Matrix Game - 'A Reckoning of Vultures' - Rex Brynen and Tom Mouat (04/12/16)

On Sunday I was invited to “A Reckoning of Vultures”: a Matrix game designed by Tom Mouat and Rex Brynen [1]. The game is set in the capital of the fictional Republic of Matrixia, where the President-for-Life is on his death bed, and various power-hungry factions are jostling to control important parts of the city so they can seize power upon his imminent demise.

A Matrix Game

Though this blog primarily exists to talk about megagames, A Reckoning of Vultures is actually a 'Matrix Game', with only 5 players (plus one control/umpire called a Facilitator). But there is a lot that megagames and matrix games share with each other in terms of design and function.

So what is a matrix game [2]? A matrix game is similar to a board game or war game in the sense that a small number of players have a map and counters (or something similar) and each has their own objectives for what they're trying to achieve. However, unlike in these games, a matrix game does not have existing rules for pre-determined interactions – instead players are encouraged to think of their own actions, whatever they may be, and the Facilitator (umpire) or other players decide on how likely it is and then roll dice to determine the outcome. In this sense, it is similar to having the components for a small board game, but the mechanics of a very light, freeform tabletop RPG – with some structure provided by turns and a system of “arguments” for why certain outcomes are likely. More information on matrix games can be found here.

A typical matrix game turn - one player tries to achieve something and the action's success/effectiveness is determined by a dice roll, with positive or negative modifiers applied by "arguments" - points made by the players or Facilitator about why it would or wouldn't be likely to work.

So how are they similar to megagames? Matrix games and megagames both utilise player freedom and creativity with some limited resource and strict turn mechanics, to create a game where players organically create their own narrative, rather than focusing solely on being the victor. Both games allow a high level of flexibility which makes them great for simulations of exciting and interesting scenarios. They also share the core mechanic of player communication and negotiation being key – players are limited in both time and resources, so the players who can figure out how to work together and broker deals will almost always do better than those who refuse to cooperate with anyone.

Hopefully you now have an idea of what a matrix game is, and why looking at one can be a valuable experience for those interested in learning more about megagames – though hopefully it's interesting to learn about a new style of game experience anyway!

How to Win Friends & Influence Helicopter Pilots

The game began. The President-for-Life was gravely ill and multiple factions were poised to seize power. I was playing as the National Union of Toilers (NUT) – a coalition of the oppressed people and underpaid exploited workers of the city (represented by red tokens and markers). There were also four other factions competing for Matrixia's future:

The Ministry of the Interior (MoI) – In control of the city's fire, ambulance, and, most importantly, police forces (represented by blue).

The Matrixia Armed Forces (MAF) – Commanding the Army, Air and Navy contingents of Matrixia's military (represented by green).

The Central Security and Intelligence Directorate (CSID) – In charge of a number of spies and armed thugs, and with a great deal of influence (represented by black).

The Oligarchs – Owning a lot of money, and having command of various hired thugs and private security details (represented by orange).

The Map at the start of the game with all of the key locations - colours indicate which faction controls them at the start of the game (grey locations are neutral).

During deployment and during the first phase, each faction got to place down a number of influence markers. The CSID tried to get influence over the military's Air units and the President's personal guard, and the Oligarchs tried to control the military's marines and the hospital. The MAF decided to cement troop loyalty and spent their influence countering the other teams' attempts on their air and naval units. I only had two influence counters, so decided to keep things low-key and spend them on the local Church leader and the police HQ (it was decided that this meant that there was rumours of the police forming unions). The MoI decided to counter my influence at their HQ and also to contest influence with the CSID on the President's personal guard.

It's Just a Cough

In the first stage of the game, the factions were restricted to moving and influencing – no-one could attack each other until the President-for-Life was dead, which would begin the second stage. He had 10 'points' to go before he finally kicked the bucket, and at the end of each game round, he'd lose D6 of them.

And so the race was on to grow our power and spread our influence before any conflict began.

The CSID began obtaining all the details of the President's secret Swiss bank account using spies at the Central Bank, ensuring they got a steady income of funds once he had passed. The MoI decided to blockade the bridges and to put undercover operatives amongst my workers at the Port. The military spent time and money on carefully planned promotions and reassignments in order to assure further loyalty. The Oligarchs started hiring security teams and criminals around military locations. I managed to get more supporters to join the cause at the Port and the Refinery, including recruiting an excellent new orator.

Support for the NUT is increased at the Port by my rhetoric.

That was all there was for the first phase – after a roll of a 6 and then a 5 for the President's health, he was dead before the third round.

That's when the shooting started.

The Shooting Starts

Out-and-out combat was now an option and all bets were off. There were another 10 points on the countdown for phase two, this time they represented the time before the government delegates arrived in parliament to establish the new government. And controlling key locations was critical in having the upper hand during the upcoming decision.

The effects of the aforementioned influence markers would now be determined. After a quick round of dice rolls, the CSID lost their influence on the paratroopers, but kept it on the fighter jets and transport helicopters. The Oligarchs failed to retain influence over the marines but kept their influence on the city's ambulance unit. The President's personal guards ended up remaining neutral with neither the CSID nor MoI being able to sway them one way or the other. I didn't manage to gain any influence at the Police HQ, but I did manage to bring the Church leader over to my cause.

The MoI quickly set up police blockades on the two main bridges. This changed everything – effectively dividing the city into two halves. The CSID then wasted no time and hired more thugs to protect their interests in the bank.

The Oligarchs struck a deal with me so that I would sell them the fuel from the Refinery – they would then cut off the fuel to the rest of the city and sell the rest to buyers outside the country – this got us both some money (represented by money counters) and caused negative penalties for all the other teams whenever they wanted to move something with vehicles. This seemed like a decent partnership to make at the time – though my faction despised the Oligarchs (they despised everyone [3]), it made sense to try and cooperate with somebody for my own benefit, and at least the Oligarchs had all of their units on the other side of the river.

The army moved in on the city's Mosque, citing Islamic Extremists as responsible for the President's death as well as the unrest in general [4]. The mosque was set ablaze, and nearby vehicles were drained for fuel to assist in military units' movement during the new fuel shortage.

The Army moves in on the Mosque - a key location.

I made my first major aggressive move and took my new supporters to the prison – there I demanded that the MoI release the President's unjustly incarcerated political prisoners. The MoI player had to choose whether to meet my demands or risk my units storming the prison – in the end he chose to yield. I was partially hoping that he would refuse so that I would have an excuse to justifiably storm and take the Prison location, but instead I got a new unit of criminals (we decided they were a mix of important friends of mine and useful criminal contacts) without having to risk any combat, so still a win.

I then used my units, including my new criminal contacts, to storm the Ministry of Defence building. This made sense for my faction, as (with a Christian core – which we decided they had, considering that I had control of the religious leader counter at the Church) they were horrified at the military's clear religious oppression at the Mosque. This also seemed like a clear tactical objective – if I could control the building, the MAF units would surely become less effective. Also the only military unit in the building was some barely armed officers. The army and navy were stuck on the other side of police roadblocks and the MAF's paratroopers were stranded as the CSID controlled their transport helicopters.

My protesters, workers and released prisoners, though numerous (4 units), were still effectively unarmed, and I had to make a choice whether to spend a turn arming them or go straight for the building. I was worried that the military would reinforce things or the police would try to break up my units, and I decided to rush the place with what I had. I rolled off against the defenders (the officers and some basic security), but they managed to hold my units off.

My protesters and newly free friends move on the Ministry of Defence.

The Tipping Point

My protesters were in the middle of assaulting the Ministry of Defence, and if I managed to gain control of it, I'd gain a serious advantage. So it shouldn't have surprised me when the CSID cooperated with the MAF, using the helicopters they had control of to allow the MAF to land their paratroopers near the building [5]. There was a brief combat, but quality really showed itself superior to quantity, and all of my units were gunned down – my player character barely managing to escape into the streets.

Paratroopers move in and gun down everyone - the only unit left is my player character himself.

This was a major blow. I'd lost almost all the units I'd gained so far, and was forced to retreat back to my starting locations (Port, Refinery and Industrial Zone). The MoI used their police infiltrators to exploit the fear from the massacre and the potential religious schism from the Mosque attack to nullify my units at the Port, and I had to spend a turn getting them back under my control. My chance to be top of the pack (or at least come close) was well and truly shut down, and I would spend the next few turns recuperating and strengthening my position in the industrial corner that I started in.

Parliament Heats Up

The MAF moved the Army into Parliament, resulting in a firefight with the Police already stationed there. The Oligarchs' private security unit decided to flee the scene, but the CSID sent some thugs in to support the police. They fought to a stalemate, with the MAF's tank unit being seriously damaged.

The MAF moves in on Parliament, clashing with the MoI and CSID units already there.

The MoI decided to exercise the police control they had over the Airport, and bribed/delayed certain select members of the delegation, which would give them an advantage in the final phase.

The fight at parliament delayed the delegation, and the Oligarchs took the opportunity of extra time to assault the Radio/TV Station with their private security forces. They managed to defeat the police stationed there, gaining them a very valuable key location.

The Oligarchs take control of the news station. Local news anchor says "I, for one, welcome our new Oligarch overlords."

The CSID consolidated its power and added some thugs to the University and Party HQ. The Oligarchs tried to use their ambulance unit to transport a unit of security forces to the university, but they failed critically, and in the confusion due to the conflict throughout the city, they wound up driving right back into the Parliament fight. Also the fire at the Mosque had now spread and Parliament was also on fire. Pretty bad luck on that one.

The World's Slowest Politicians

The Oligarchs sent their men to the Airport to assert themselves, but given the Airport's large size, they were able to do it without direct conflict with the police presence.

The MoI and the CSID cooperated at Parliament and managed to gang up on and defeat the MAF infantry. The MoI then managed to put out the fire at Parliament, but not before the building was destroyed. However, the symbolic effect of the brave firefighters putting out the blaze meant that the MoI got an additional political advantage from holding Parliament in the final phase.

What's left after the carnage at the Parliament building.

As the CSID assaulted the Ministry of Defence (ironic considering their defence of it not too long ago), I suddenly realised that the Oligarchs' scoring areas included my primary locations of the Port, Refinery and Industrial Zone, and that they were capable of hiring new units anywhere – so their separation by being on the other side of the river didn't matter so much. I decided I was “throwing off the shackles of our capitalist oppressors” (more fun than saying “I'm no longer cooperating with you because it's now more tactically beneficial not to do so”) and immediately cancelled our cooperation at the Refinery. I would no longer be receiving any money, but the Oligarchs would have a harder time getting a hold anywhere I had supporters. I burned a bridge by doing this – but it was late game and I was pretty sure he was going to betray me by attempting to contest those areas any second.

A pattern of many 3s, 2s and 1s on the dice meant that the delegates were being very slow to arrive and all the factions had more time. At first this seemed beneficial to me as I needed to strengthen my forces after the failed attack on the Ministry of Defence, but I quickly realised that my existing positions were already worth a lot - and the longer things went on, the more likely the Oligarchs were to attempt to steal them from me (or at least contest them so that I couldn't get the points).

As things came to a head, the Oligarchs did exactly as I was expecting and hired mercenaries to shoot up all my supporters in the Industrial Zone. At about the same time, the MAF tried to launch an amphibious assault with their marines to get to the Ministry of Defence, but couldn't get close enough thanks to the police blockade at the bridge (that extended down to the river with some well-placed barges).

Oligarch security teams take their commandeered ambulance and attack the Industrial Zone.

There was a 2/3 chance that this would be the final turn. I left my armed protesters behind to keep the Port and Refinery secure, and marched a bunch of my protesters and orator to the Industrial Zone in order to intimidate and push out the Oligarchs' security forces. The Oligarchs player was given the choice of either letting my attempt to rally the people against him pass or fail on its own, or immediately opening fire on me and starting combat, and chose the latter. We ended up drawing and I was forced to sit my troops just outside of the Industrial Zone.

A last-minute attempt to take back the Industrial Zone for the NUT.

Then the final dice was rolled, and the delegates finally made it to the city.

Alea Iacta Est

The fighting and unrest was over. Now was the time for the true power to be established. Phase three comprised of 4 rounds of dice rolling. Each round, each of the players would roll 2D6 and add the score they had based on their key locations held. Key locations like the Parliament gave re-rolls. The MoI had managed to get 3 re-rolls from their symbolic firefighting efforts at parliament and their successful bribing/delaying-unwanted-delegates action at the airport earlier. Whoever had the lowest total at the end of each round would be eliminated from the running for winner.

Final scores based on key locations held.

Players could also buy dice from each other before seeing what had been rolled on them – though on this occasion no-one made use of this mechanic.

I was in joint last place with 3 key location points (Church, Port and Refinery) and no rerolls. But with 2D6 to roll, nothing was certain.

First round: Despite their rerolls, somehow the MoI and I manage to be joint last. It goes to 'Rock, Paper, Scissors'. I win.

Second round: The CSID had the highest key location points total, but he rolled terribly, and I am joint last a second time. Another RPS and another victory, and I still remain.

Third round: Joint last again with the Oligarchs. Another RPS, another victory. I started to feel like I hadn't truly earned this much success.

Fourth round: Against all odds, only me and the MAF – the two factions with lowest key location point totals – remain, and I manage to tie on the die roll for a fourth time. This time I don't win the RPS, however.

And so it was that the head of the Matrixian Armed Forces became the new president. The Oligarchs won second place, which is a position that goes to the player with the most money [6]. Players were considered to survive if they had a way out of the city. The head of the MoI, having lost total control of the Airport, was executed. The head of the CSID had his helicopter unit, but given the fuel shortage and that he'd used it so much during the game, it was ruled that it was not a valid way out of the country and he too was executed. And for me? Well, I still had the port...

I was the only non-winner to survive. You take the small victories where you can, eh?

The Port - the location where my game started and ended.

Some Analysis

I should start by saying that this isn't the first matrix game I have played – I have previously run a matrix game called 'Kazhdyy Gorod' [7]. Kazhdyy Gorod is similar to Reckoning, in that it is set in a fictional city undergoing political turmoil and unpredictability of who will end up in charge. Players complete to win popularity and power, trying to improve their situation (and often try to win more potential votes if it is decided the game ends with an election). The players have a map and unit/resource counters, but other than that there is very little structure (aside from the standard matrix game turn order/arguments process).

I think that A Reckoning of Vultures benefited greatly from additional rules. The separation into two distinct phases of the game improved the pacing and helped flesh out the narrative; the use of specific counters for money, units and influence allowed for more satisfying tactical thinking; effective rules for combat meant you could clearly anticipate the benefits of which units you have; and having key locations to control meant that players had clear objectives to plan around – whilst still allowing enough freedom in the space in between to encourage both player creativity and development of a flexible narrative.

I believe that the key locations also solved an issue that I had found in Kazhdyy Gorod. Namely that the rigid turn order structure and range of actions available caused problems as to how long each player's turn lasted in the game's time. For example, one player's ambush would happen in the same round as another player's political campaign, and things became messy and it was hard to gauge what was happening within the narrative. The key locations meant that most turns were players moving to and/or doing something important in one location – thus ensuring that the turn times felt uniform.

As someone pointed out in the post-game discussion, there's a significant amount of random chance, especially in the final phase – but I think that's fine considering that it's a relatively short game. The random dice rolling at the end also means that the key locations are not the final decider – if that were the case then players would be incentivised to be doing constant mental arithmetic over key location control (and potential future control) in order to win at the end, which I believe would be stressful and tedious. Adding random chance at the end means you can just do your best when obtaining key locations, taking actions based on instinct and informed guessing.

As Rex pointed out afterwards, the final phase of the game is also meant to show how a matrix game, benefiting from its value as a simulation, can be used to provide starting points for other types of game, such as the dice rolling mechanics of the final phase.

I have three negative observations, though the first two apply to matrix games in general, so they're more systemic weaknesses than fixable problems or mistakes.

Firstly, it's clear that matrix games are not for everyone. This is true of any kind of game of course, but matrix games look like board games and sound slightly like RPGs, whilst actually lacking a large amount of structure compared to these. If you are intending to play a matrix game with board game or RPG players, be careful to manage expectations. Matrix games' strengths are in their ability to simulate and to create freeform narratives, so they're best suited to players who will be willing to engage with games in order to experience those. If your players are likely to enjoy games less when they lack a lot of structure, be careful with matrix games; relative to other games, there is a lot of doubt and uncertainty about actions' mechanical effects, and players will need to be able to move their focus away from winning sometimes in order to allow the simulation and communal narrative to work.

Secondly, as I know from experience with Kazhdyy Gorod, matrix games need a Facilitator who is both good at managing their players and comfortable with their knowledge of the setting. The freedom allowed by matrix games can end up leading to long debates about what will work and what won't, or about what certain aspects of the setting are or aren't. A good Facilitator needs to be able to be both flexible and firm – allowing player creativity and taking in arguments, but also knowing when to finish things and move on to avoid further debate that slows and muddies the game. Thankfully, Rex was a great Facilitator for our game.

The third criticism is more about the game as an event than as a game. The two main phases are of unpredictable length – which I thought was very interesting in terms of decision making during the game, but if you were planning to run this game, it might cause problems, as you wouldn't know whether it would take under an hour to play or possibly up to about 4 hours. Depending on what context you are trying to organise this game in, this may be an issue. In a way, this can be seen in our playthrough – where the first phase was only two rounds long (about as short as it can reasonably be without someone deliberately assassinating the president), so we didn't get to experience much of it, and this meant that there was less feedback on how well the first phase worked.

In Summary

Game Over! Thanks everyone for a great game.

I definitely enjoyed A Reckoning of Vultures. It was a fun simulation with some enjoyable objective based gameplay, and some asymmetrical but well-balanced teams all cooperating and competing for power. The narrative was fun and I can definitely see its potential as an educational and interesting game.

Tom and Rex are using A Reckoning of Vultures as the introductory base game in their upcoming Matrix Game Construction Kit, which they are planning to sell as a package that lets people build and experiment with their own matrix games, as well as having pre-made scenarios such as this one.

If you are interested in matrix games, there are some available from Tom Mouat's website right now that you can take a look at. If you want to really learn and experiment with matrix games and what they can be used for, read up on the Matrix Game Construction Kit when it comes out next year (it is planned to be released on April 1st, 2017). I'll definitely be looking into it when it comes out.


[1] I admit I was a little excited to be taking part in this game because as Tom and Rex are very interesting people in the alternative/educational gaming world. Tom Mouat is Directing Staff Officer for Simulation and Modelling at the Defence Academy of the UK. Rex Brynen is the Professor of Political Science at McGill University, Editor of the PaxSims blog and designer of simulation based games such as Aftershock and Isis Crisis.

[2] The term “matrix game” is sometimes used to describe a game theory concept called a 'normal form game', which is a separate thing entirely – so don't get confused if you google it. This article is about the alternative story-telling game style developed by Chris Engle.

[3] All of the factions were completely opposed to all of the others – a key part of the game is that no-one has any pre-determined reason to cooperate. Any cooperation will occur naturally within the game based on the situation and negotiation skills.

[4] Matrix games allow the players to fill in pieces of the narrative as the game goes on. In this turn it was established that Matrixia was a country divided between a Christian majority and a Islamic minority (informed mostly by the existence of both a Church and a Mosque location on the map) – and that there had been an Islamic secessionist war in the recent past somewhere else in the country. This gave the MAF player a reasonable motive for doing these actions and occupying the Mosque location. Interestingly it also later led to some beneficial motivation for my faction, when I claimed that the obviously corrupt authorities were clearly engaging in religious oppression.

[5] It did surprise me – I hadn't properly visualised the map and the location values. I thought I was still small time and this was an important but not too major step forward in gaining key locations. In reality we were all just about equal at this stage, and taking the Ministry of Defence would have potentially swung things majorly in my favour for a few turns.

[6] The CSID and Oligarchs were actually tied for how much money they had at the end, but the Oligarchs won a 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' tiebreaker.

[7] Kazhdyy Gorod is an introductory matrix game by Tom Mouat – you can download it for free here if you're interested.

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