Getting Started: Successfully Organizing and Setting Up for a Home-Based 'Monster' Game
'Monster' games seem to be a perennial favorite among a small but dedicated group of players at the major war gaming conventions. This is because, for many of these gamers, the convention venue is the only opportunity they ever actually have to play these titles with real opponents. And for a lot of these convention-goers, the home-based 'monster', while it would be a great option, just never seems to work out. In many cases, these enthusiasts just don’t have any local competition; however, even in those situations where they do have contact with a few "neighborhood" players, they rarely have much luck getting a big game up and running. I know all about it; I’ve been there myself.
Actually, I would guess that a lot of players — if they are lucky enough to have a few regular face-to-face opponents — have at least attempted to play one of these really big games, but probably very few have gotten much farther than the first few moves, if that far. Usually, if my own past experience is any guide, either the game loses momentum because of startup problems before it can even get under way, or it "blows up" for reasons already alluded to in my first post on this topic. In addition, people often lose interest and drop out when they realize that they have enlisted in a project that will probably take as long (in gaming sessions) as the actual campaign took in real time. And in team games, sadly, personalities will sometimes clash as the game progresses; this is particularly prevalent, not surprisingly, among members of the same team. Having personally dealt with all of these issues — as well as many others — in my past experiences with really BIG games, I offer the following suggestions to anyone who, on their own, contemplates getting one of these behemoths under way.
First, and this is important, select a game that everyone actually wants to play. In the “old days,” this wasn’t that hard: there were only a few 'monster' games to choose from. Now, this can be a real obstacle to even getting things beyond the “talking” stage. My only advice in this situation is: be flexible! I can remember at least three occasions when I lobbied for 'WACHT AM RHEIN' prior to our group beginning a new game. I owned a copy for over thirty years and, despite my best efforts, I never once actually got a chance to play the game. I finally sold my copy on eBay two years ago. Assuming you can get everyone to agree on a title: what then? If possible try to get at least two copies of the game, so that one set of maps can serve as “planning maps” for players who are waiting to make their next move. Photocopy the rules, and make LOTS of copies. If there are going to be six players — three per side — then make at least twelve photocopies of the complete rules, including errata. Be sure that every player gets his own copy of the rules no later than a month before the game is scheduled to start. And assume that at least half of the players will misplace or damage their rules by the time the game begins; hence the additional “backup” copies. Once everyone has read the rules, a session should be scheduled so that players can hash out any of the inevitable rules questions and disagreements that are sure to have cropped up; this should be done well before the game even gets set up.
Second, take care when organizing the two opposing teams. As should be obvious, the two strongest (best) players should be on opposing teams. Also try to have at least one player on each team who is really committed to the 'monster' game project and who will probably stick with it to the “bitter end.” Make sure that the player with the highest “demoralization threshold” is on the defending team. In virtually all 'monster' games, one side is going to get the crap kicked out of it for at least the first few turns (if not more) of the game, so it is important to have a player manning the defense whose morale is not going to crack when he sees his side’s unit counters march into the “dead pile” turn after turn.
Third, set the rules for player conduct before going any farther in the “monster” game preparation process. I like to refer to this as the “NO alcohol, tobacco, or firearms” part of the game’s preplanning. Make sure that all the players know that there will be no smoking or drinking during the actual play of the game, or anywhere near the game table once a play session has ended. In the case of my friends and me, when we finished a long stint at the game table and were ready to call it a day, we would typically adjourn outside for cigars and a celebratory beer or two. This kept the game table free of ashes, and spills, and the host’s house from smelling like cigar smoke. I can’t say that it is the best way to cap off a long session at the game table, but it certainly worked for us. Also, unless the game venue is the local “bikers” clubhouse, no swearing: I can guarantee that — no matter how understanding the host’s wife might otherwise be — she is not going to be happy to hear profanity drifting into the earshot of her children. And try to keep things polite. Nothing sours the mood around the game table faster than the liberal use of terms like: moron, cretin, drooling idiot, or dim bulb. I think you get the idea: make a real effort to keep it civil, no matter what happens.
Fourth, and I know this sounds obvious: decide on a game site that can be committed to the project for however long it takes. Convenience is also a consideration, but permanence is critical. Make sure that the game venue can be secured (locked if necessary) to prevent the depredations of children and pets. This means that children and pets can NEVER be allowed, under any circumstances, into the immediate vicinity of the game once it starts. I’m sure that little Kenny and Susie are well-behaved and cute as the dickens; it doesn’t matter: you should still treat the game room just like it is a gun locker!
Fifth, make sure that the game table will be big enough to display the entire map and any charts that players must frequently refer to in the course of the game. A 4’ x 8’ sheet of plywood on top of two sawhorses is not what I mean. If you have to, build an appropriate playing surface, but make sure it is well-constructed. Take it from me, it is an absolute certainty that, as the game progresses, someone will bump into the table; if it is not sturdy, pieces are going to fan out like a pregame mix of Mahjong tiles. Once an appropriately-sized table has been either located or built, cover the surface of the table with felt (you can buy some at any fabric store); the felt will keep the map sections from sliding around on the table top. Next, find or buy a few sheets of Plexiglas (typically, a good size is 2’ x 4’ — four sheets will then cover a 4’ x 8’ surface very nicely). Now you are ready to spread your map sheets and charts out on the felt and cover them all with the Plexiglas. But before you do, there are still a few other housekeeping issues to take care of. So continuing right along …
Sixth, it is crucial that there be enough light for players to actually see what they are doing. A good rule of thumb is that, if you can’t actually read the stock market section of the Wall Street Journal when it is spread out on the playing surface, then you don’t have enough light. Since few people want to rewire their basement or a guest bedroom just to accommodate a 'monster' game, the easiest solution is to buy a couple of articulated drafting lamps and attach them to the table (usually at the back) with vice clamps. This should be done after the maps have been positioned and covered. The clamps, once they are tightened on the seams between the different sheets of Plexiglas, will also help to stabilize these covers.
Seventh, allow a reasonable amount of time for both sides to familiarize themselves with the game once it is actually set up. It is one thing to read the rules and examine the game components in the box; it is quite another to see one of these 'monsters' laid out in all its glory. A couple of weekends devoted to planning and mini-games (playing using only part of the map and a limited number of counters) will go a long way towards eliminating glitches in the early going. Finally, once all of this has been done, allow the defending side at least a half day to set up and double-check their final defensive positions before actually beginning play.
And that’s it. If you follow these few simple steps, I promise that your prospects for a 'monster' game actually getting under way successfully will improve dramatically. Of course, how long it actually continues once you get it going is another thing entirely, and that is probably a good topic for a future post.