Friday, July 28, 2006

Current Crises, Future Games

You’ve spent years working toward a final peace accord. On the eve of signing a treaty, a fanatic splinter group from your opponent’s camp attacks one of your outposts with great loss of life. Do you ignore the attack—and violate the never-show-weakness principle that has guided all your military actions? Or do you risk the peace settlement and retaliate?

In the July 23rd edition of the Sunday New York Times there was an article in the Arts & Leisure section by Clive Thompson on computer games that deal with real world problems. One notable game was called Peacemaker, and it lets players step into the shoes of either the leader of Israel or the Palestinian people to try to resolve the Middle East trouble spot. The game was invented more as a teaching tool than as competition for Grand Theft Auto, but it sounded fascinating nevertheless.

It made me wonder: where are the board games dealing with real world topics? Why aren’t designers making games about the issues that will shape the future of world? Is it because they have no interest in designing them? Or do they fear that the market will not support games that lack little plastic trains, tanks, or dragons?

I refuse to believe that game designers aren’t up to the challenge of tackling thorny current issues. And I do believe that a game can be both a compelling simulation and educational (in the broadest sense of the word) at the same time. Hard-core wargamers are turning to Ed Beach’s Here I Stand because they like the multi-player competition and rich historical detail. But as they try to capture Vienna or debate Martin Luther or circumnavigate the globe, they get a lesson in Renaissance and Reformation history. (Of course, it may be that the type of person who plays Here I Stand is the type of person who doesn’t need a lesson in Renaissance and Reformation history, but that’s beside the point.) Later this year, Decision Games will reprint A Mighty Fortress, SPI’s original six-player game of Reformation conflict that inspired Ed Beach to create his masterpiece. Isn’t it odd that there will soon be two games of religious conflict in the 1600s, but no reasonably realistic games about the religious, political, and military conflicts of the 21st century?

Here are three suggested game proposals dealing with topical issues.

Oval Office
There have been a lot of games dealing with presidential elections, but none dealing with the mechanics and challenges of governing America from the Oval Office. In this two-player game, players become either Republican or Democratic presidents trying to implement their political agenda while dealing with the unexpected crises that wind up on the president’s desk. At the beginning of the game, each player looks through a selection of Republican or Democratic policy cards, and secretly chooses cards to be his primary and secondary policy goals.

During the average turn, each player can attempt to woo Congress, improve foreign relations, court the general public (to improve his poll numbers), or please various interest groups. Each turn, each player also draws three crisis cards, and selects one card which he can play on his opponent. Crises may be natural disasters, terrorist attacks, Middle East conflicts, flu pandemics, Supreme Court nominations, political scandals, or economic problems. Players must solve these crises as fast as possible because each unsolved crisis that lingers into the next turn saps the president’s popularity and final victory point total. Some crises can be solved without the cooperation of Congress, but often Congressional action is required. Getting Congress to cooperate can be difficult—because the opposing player also acts as the Congressional opposition. Mid-term Congressional elections are a litmus test of each president’s effectiveness—and an opportunity for each party to try to gain seats in the House and Congress.

Will you place cronies and lobbyists in positions of power and reap vast campaign contributions while risking the effectiveness of the government? Will you try to get a modest health insurance benefit through Congress, or will you go for the big victory points by trying to get a controversial universal plan approved even as the HMOs bankroll ads attacking your plan? Will you take unilateral action against that saber-rattling dictator, or will you try to get United Nation sanctions passed by a Security Council that is filled with nations jealous of American power? All these painful tradeoffs can be yours when you occupy the Oval Office.

In this medium complexity Eurogame, players control non-governmental organizations trying to eliminate poverty and eradicate disease around the world. Players must balance their efforts to lobby governments, raise funds, and recruit volunteers with the necessity of sending aid workers to areas of the world that may be dangerous. Players choose weather to develop long-term projects that may have lasting results or to respond to the crisis of the moment. It’s all here: Irish rock stars, altruistic software billionaires, donor fatigue, famines, tsunamis, civil wars, and kleptomaniac third-world governments. Can you persuade western governments to increase their aid? Can you orchestrate a cease fire in a war-torn country? Can you provide malaria-preventing mosquito nets to Africa’s children? A consciousness-raising game that pays tribute to some of the most altruistic and courageous people on earth.

The Shape of Things to Come
A game of political, ideological, religious, and military conflict in the first half of the 21st century (in the same big-picture vein as Twilight Struggle). Players take control of the USA, Russia, China, the Islamic world, and (in a five player game) Europe. Each player gains victory points for increasing the prosperity of their region, but each player also has his own unique agenda. The USA gains points for increasing democracy around the world. Russia and China gain points for increasing their prestige and influence relative to the USA. The Islamic player gains points for religious expansion, acquiring nuclear weapons, creating a nation of Palestine, or removing outside influence from the Middle East.

Each player faces dilemmas that mirror real-world problems. The USA can strengthen international institutions that lessen the costs of dealing with regional or global crises, but this may put limits on American unilateral action. The Islamic player can unleash terrorism that reduces American or Russian victory points and hurts their economies. But terrorism also limits the prospects for Islamic democracy and prosperity (and can become a genie that refuses to return to its bottle). All the non-USA players can increase their democratic/human rights infrastructure as a way improving their economies, but democratic populations demand that more resources be spent on increasing standards of living. The USA player can degrade the American democratic/human rights index to improve its ability to fight terrorism, but this also weakens American prestige.

Event cards depict crises that are both threats and opportunities. These include: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the struggle for Kashmir, Taiwanese independence, Chechen rebellions, North Korean saber rattling, AIDS in Africa, leadership struggles in Saudi Arabia, nuclear and bio terrorism, and the on-going energy crisis. Meanwhile, global warming is a ticking bomb that threatens to destroy all players unless they unite to take action. A moderate complexity game about the struggles that will shape our lives in the coming decades.


Coldfoot said...

I would suppose that boardgames based on current, still unfolding events would have too limited a shelf life.

An initial print run of a typical, non-award winning game is usually still available 2-3 years after its initial release. In this day and age a lot of other factors can come into play in 2-3 years which the designer could not have envisioned.

Video game makers can better address these issues because their product already has a limited shelf life. In 2-3 years a video game is ancient history.

Pawnstar said...

In some ways, topical games have been around for decades. Examples are Summit,Game of Nations,Superpower,60 Minutes to Save the Earth and Dog Eat Dog. I also had a copy of a game produced on behalf of UNICEF which involved the process of fair trade with poorer nations (as I remember); but it was roll-and-move and passed out of my collection.

There have also been other topical games which are far too political to even consider worthy of playing. The trouble with a game being too topical is that it can cross a line where some would find it offensive.

Anonymous said...

Some great ideas Kris, those all sound like games I would enjoy playing. Keep 'em coming!

Kris Hall said...

I would argue that most of the political games we could list are either out of date(for instance, games based on the cold war) or are not realistic. (I realize that realistic is in the eye of the beholder, and thus hard to define. Let me just say that I consider a game like Here I Stand to be a relatively realistic treatment of the politics of its era, but I game like Lightning War on Terror is not).

And yes, games that are especially topical could date rather quickly or be in bad taste. I would think that a game based on the current conflict in Iraq would not be kosher because our soldiers are still dying there. But I am not suggesting that we need games so topical that they are rooted in a particular year. A game based on the modern presidency could have events based on anything that has happened since the fall of Communism, plus any number of hypothetical events. Such a game would not necessarily date quickly.

Kimbo said...

Why would I want to play a game based on current events? I play games to relax, and for entertainment. Wrestling with the "thorny issues of todays world" just doesn't strke me as a lot of fun. Of course I think the guy should always get the girl and movies should have happy endings.

DWTripp said...

Kris - I'd probably buy any game you describe here. The chances of me getting someone I know to play it are None and... of course...Absolutely None.

Which means that A Game of Thrones or Winner's Circle or perhaps a war game are a much easier sell to most gamers.

qzhdad said...

I'd like to throw out some cynical obeservations that hit me as I was reading your thought provoking article.

"There have been a lot of games dealing with presidential elections, but none dealing with the mechanics and challenges of governing America from the Oval Office. "
I haven't observed a difference between being in office and running for office.

"Can you persuade western governments to increase their aid?"
I don't see any way to model this other than a die roll and we all know how our crowd reacts to dice.

The last game shows some promise...

Actually, most of these games sound interesting, but I agree with some of the earlier respondents that topical issues may look silly before the shelf life has expired.
Also, it is easier to play the part of the evil German empire in WWII, because we know that they were defeated in the real world history. Playing the part of a pilot guiding a plane into tall buildings (or the mastermind behind the deed) might not be as much fun because the ultimate triumph of the "good guys" isn't assured.
One other factor that works against a serious treatment of these topics is that there isn't common consensus about today's events. It's easier to look back in history and set up sides with unique strengths and weaknesses for events/world situation as it existed in the past. For example, today, it would be difficult to prepare an OOB for the current Israeli-Hizbollah conflict.

But if these games get produced, I'll be looking at them, but I may have to meet DWTripp somewhere to actually play them.

Anonymous said...

I guess DW and others hit it on the nail. You can buy these highly topical games, but who are you going to get to play them. And that's really the most important part of f2f gaming. The faces that play. I already have a good doorstop called Wizard. I don't have room or use of another one.(And I have many games collecting dust mind you).

All politics aside, the biggest problem with these highly topical games for me isn't even the politics of it(I'm pretty opened minded about current events), but rather they just suck as a "game".

Anonymous said...

Designing one of this games is one thing. Getting it published the other: Which company really want to produce a game with a "touchy" theme? Risking an outcry? Very few I suppose.
And think of BGG debates about slavery in PR or even Bushs foreign policy (which comes up every now and then in geeklists alike) - what more will there be if its a game about lebanon? It is impossible to create a game about a current affair without hurting feelings. And for a companys point of view, this is bad advertisment.

Another reason: Who would play it? You play to relax, tackling worlds questions doensnt seem to be relaxing at all. That most games about current affairs are educational doensnt help the reputation either.

And: With a topic from the past you are less likely to be involved in a way. There are tons of games about Pompeii, but making a game about the Tsunami ibn Bandeh Aceh wouldnt be very well recieved. Its OK to play Familiy Business, but Suicide Bomber is not.

Chris Farrell said...

Plenty of these games exist. They are called RPGs and LARPs. Every year at Origins there is a big National Security Decision-Making Game that covers exactly this sort of thing (it's basically a LARP). The recent Final Flight of Santiago adventure from Mongoose which, while in the Babylon 5 universe, puts the players into the roles of the Cheifs of Staff and puts them to work working on a variety of political issues, including issues of immigration, trade, and an intractible military-political one.

Board games are much less suitable a venue to the sort of thing you're talking about, which is why they haven't generally been tackled. When you have to add up points at the end of the game and see who won, how do you model the advantages of signing a free-trade agreement? Or a peace treaty? It makes no sense. In the real world, the theory goes that both parties win, so that's good; in a board game, one party wins less, which is bad. If it's a solitaire or cooperative game like Lord of the Rings with a final result of Mid-East Peace, the game won't model any kind of reality.

Where boardgame have worked somewhat is as allegory. Bruno Faidutti's Terra is an example. You could argue that Settlers works to some extent on that level also. I'm sure there are many others.

Anonymous said...

Have you played Terro?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, make that "Terra."