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17 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.2

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.1

So in the true spirit of wayward development, on top of the previous four games mentioned in my last post, there's now a fifth, new game. And if that weren't enough, this new game has shot straight to the top of our priority list; it hasn't even been played yet. We did warn you this would be quite a random process.

Corruption (working title)

This latest game is about corruption, specifically corruption in Russia, but it will be built around elements that I hope will be recognisable in any corrupt regime or system.

Why Russian corruption? Aren't there countries more deserving of criticism? Yes, absolutely, but there are two main reasons why we've alighted on this subject. The first is that, quite simply, we were asked to consider it. The Russian game publishers, Igrato, are currently in the process of licencing Crunch from us (more about that soon). One day they said, "you could make a great game about Russian corruption".

We thought about it a bit and I started doing some research. I watched this great-creepy documentary about the "Nashi" (scarily reminiscent of Hitler youth), this excellent BBC series, Putin, Russia and the West, and am nearing the end of the rather dramatically titled Mafia State: How one reporter became an enemy of the brutal new Russia (which to be fair is a pretty gripping read). And of course, Putin's Russia by Anna Politkovskaya is on the list too... The more I read, the more common themes start to re-emerge - and they are incredibly juicy.

After all, corruption is a juicy subject - and that's the second reason this seemed like a good pick. Who doesn't enjoy the chance to play a corrupt, evil megalomaniac?

What I'm particularly interested in is how a mix of self-interest and fear allows corruption to take root and flourish. I'm also intrigued by how rulers like Putin and Berlusconi manage to harness such popularity through a mixture of charm, bluster and machismo and how they preside over what is really a functioning autocracy that still maintains all the signposts of a democracy. What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic faade.

What's really fascinating is that someone like Putin has more-or-less unlimited power, but he regulates himself to ensure he never crosses a line that would break this democratic faade. So I've been constructing a prototype for a couple of weeks and because of time constraints, all I got round to last night was laying out the board and elements and talking everyone through the rules. As a side-note, I can recommend this as an excellent first "road test". Don't feel you need a full group to test your new idea - just getting it all out and talking through how it plays (and fielding the inevitable questions) is a really effective way of not just discovering holes in your rules but of ordering your ideas too. Something that feels self-evident to you can suddenly feel bloated and fuzzy when you try and communicate it to others.

The game so far uses a mixture of two currencies - money and influence - to help players gain control of the game. Ultimately the win is about getting the most money, but I'm already wondering whether this is too simplistic and whether there shouldn't be more recognition of how "power" is often the goal, with money being a happy result of having power. Also, I think I need to move away from Junta wherever possible.

On that note, I was aware right from the start that escaping the shadow of Junta would be a big ask when designing a game about state corruption. Money, violence, bribery, coups, power-struggles ... these subjects are all covered by Junta and retreading this ground is pretty much inevitable. We even played a (rare) seven-player game of Junta last week to refresh our minds of this hilariously chaotic game and as a genuine fan of the game I have the tough task of making sure that any similarity is "homage" and not "ripoff"!

Without a game report to write, I'll leave you with the ingredient that generated most discussion. I want the President in "Corruption" to be able to write new rules into the game. Not select from a range of new rules, but literally rewrite the rules. And I want the other players - and their ability to organise, stick their necks out and work together - to be the only check on this potentially devastating power.

Certainly if anything is asking for a game to be broken, it's allowing the players to start making up rules. But then, players do this anyway, whether we (or even they) recognise it or not. I'm just taking that idea to an extreme. And while I had in mind that this would be a side-play to the main game, it sparked such interest and thought that I'm already wondering if it should be brought more centre-stage. I guess we'll find out how successful it is as an idea first!


Posted by Andy S on 17 October 2012 - 5 comments

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Comments so far:

  1. Calvinball!! That was the first thing to go through my mind when you said 'rewrite the rules'. Check out the 'Calvin and Hobbes' comic if you don't have a clue what I'm talking about; they're such a fount of creativity that checking them out is a good idea anyway. On a somewhat more serious note 'rewriting the rules must be bound by some rules that are not rewritable, or else one could just say 'new rule: I win!' (which is the equivalent of pulling a gun in the middle of a conversation) and that isn't the point, I would think. Take a look at the 'fluxx' series of games; there one adds, alters or removes rules by playing cards, so there is freedom, but restricted to what the doesn't violate the core definition of the activity engaged in (like pulling a gun in a conversation does). For the intrigue aspect of the game, you definitely should take a look at Diplomacy (specifically its 'everyones actions are revealed at the same time' mechanic) but you probably new that already. Best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 20 October 2012
  2. Hi David, I know Calvinball - but had long forgotten about it, so thanks for reminding me. I just spent some enjoyable minutes refreshing myself. I think the "no rules, within rules" mantra is a bit of a cop out. I accept it begrudgingly though - however, I really want to push this idea. My current solution is that a new rule doesn't immediately become law, that there's a "cooling off" period to allow the other players to react, but reacting itself is costly. So in this manner I want the player proposing the new rule to regulate themselves - not because they're bound by a framework of inexorable meta-rules, but because they need to tread that fine line between pushing an advantage and taking the piss!TerrorBull Games - 30 October 2012
  3. Ah, but the 'cooling off period' is itself a meta-rule. Of course reaction should cost you, but ultimately, even the ruler of Russia (or the US, or China, or whatever) cannot implement his rules unless he manages to convince, bribe or scare enough of the other 'powers that be (ptb)'. And there are always other ptb, in russia that would be the olicharchs, the church, the KGB etc. So maybe the president makes the rules (and I wouldn't rotate this role, Putin doesn't do so either even if Medvedev was figurehead for a while), but the ptb have to vote them in or out, and the president can only overrule them at a cost to his credibility; too much overruling and rebellion occurs. So you get an interaction where the president can oust any one of the ptb, but not without making the rest stronger. Then the president has to 'play all ends against the middle', while the ptb have to manipulate the president into helping their interests. Just some ideas for you. best of wishes!David Holt from Amsterdam - 1 November 2012
  4. Excellent ideas there, David - I genuinely like them all. I'm aware that the cooling-off is a meta-rule, but one that is closer to real life than some meta-rule that might state "Make up any rule, but you may never be president for longer than 4 turns". What I want is to invite extreme ideas - like president proposes "I'm going to be president for life" and allow the other players (who represent the ptb) to respond and for them to be the checks and balance that are needed to keep the game together, rather than a cold, intransigent set of rules in a booklet. But I think we're saying the same thing here more-or-less. Should the President ever rotate? Hmmm, really tough choice. The president can't be truly immutable, otherwise rebellion wouldn't work. But equally, it can't rotate too easily otherwise there's no fear of autocracy setting in. Ideally, I'd like to get a sense of endemic corruption going where following presidents continue where the previous one left off as they see the system benefits them - so even when there's a change of role, the nature of the role persists. Thanks again for your thoughts, it's awesome to get such interesting extra input on this.TerrorBull Games - 1 November 2012
  5. Just happy to help, no matter to how small a degree. I agree that the president should be able to be kicked out, either as a result of general rebellion or of having to hand out too much favours to one person (the final favour being 'OK, you will be president now and I will .. own Gazprom and a Datsja/mansion on the black sea coast' or something like that). Maybe it can even be a 'power move', as in 'Ok, now you are president, and you owe me a huge favour for it, so I manipulate you and strengthen my position vis-a-vis the other ptb (like the 'owning Gazprom' example I gave above) while being out of the limelight and so regaining credibility ... by criticizing the 'corrupt government' (no cynicism is too extreme here! :-p )!' Peace and Lolz too you!David Holt from Amsterdam - 2 November 2012

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