The game was boring. I tried it a bunch of times, and it worked perfectly, but wasn’t fun.
Even after much tweaking, fiddling and fettling, the game’s mechanics worked, but it wasn’t fun.
It was almost like you were slowly building your manifesto, would essentially reach an optimum strategy, and then just carry it out. Even though some preliminary ideas of supporter ‘stealing’ helped to deal with the ‘auto-pilot’ problem, it still didn’t provide the level of tension and rapid decision making that makes games actually…fun. And importantly it didn’t capture the feeling of politics being a volatile world of short termism, where ‘players’ also have to achieve long term objectives of world revolution.
I ended up having a bit of an epiphany while playing my first ever game of Pandemic, where the epidemic cards struck me as a great way to inject a level of volatility into the game without resorting to bland dice-roll randomness, and managed to create a great short term decision making process that players focused on, while trying to balance their long term objectives. I toyed with a similar idea, in ‘Emergency’ cards, which would crop up in the player deck in the same way as Pandemic, but would make a more abstract change to the game’s dynamics, rather than the ‘add more cubes’ approach, which wouldn’t have fitted well with Statecraft.
Fantastically, this worked really well! Players ended up reacting to the changing landscape of the game rapidly and significantly, making the effects of the Emergencies really meaningful, which bounced off the subject matter really well, exploring Refugee Crises and Nuclear Meltdowns. Each of these Emergencies essentially throws a spanner in the works, rendering strategies that have been developed over time redundant, as it may be that new supporters have entered the game, certain policies become useless, or characters are mercilessly culled. This made the game more of a two-tiered strategic play, with the long term strategies building over time, with players each pursuing their overall goal of attracting the most supporters, but also reacting tactically to the Emergencies that occurred throughout the game.
There was still something missing though, there was still too much ‘ticking over’ during the main chunk of players turn, with a bit of a feeling of apprehension for the next Emergency to crop up. My first thought was just to add more Emergencies, but the effects were so extreme that having more than a few in a game would have made it overly volatile, and would have lost all of the nuance of the game. The secondary problem was that although the Emergencies were ‘meaningful’ in the sense that they scuppered whatever you were doing, they didn’t really give players much agency; put differently they didn’t give you any choice of how to react. The solution was kind of a mixed ‘strategy’ that covered both of those bases, where I included mini-Emergencies (later known as simply, Events) which, when drawn from the player deck by anyone, triggered an event which gave a choice to everyone. Each of these events would throw a smaller spanner in the works, and give players a semi-regular but still essentially unpredictable chance to react to incoming political events that would shape their short term tactics, with the preferences of the population forming the long term strategies that players would develop.
The game then crystalised into one which balanced the need to retain an advantage in a crisis, but keep eyes on the endgame.
I still wasn’t happy though, although having the Events meant that players had more agency when these things were triggered mid-game, it didn’t give people a lot of control over the tactical elements of gameplay which honestly seemed a bit unrealistic, only the strategic parts of which policies to play or which supporters to focus on. I decided to integrate a card game classic to help solve this problem – the action card! That trusty, reliable staple of card games. A thing that does a thing which isn’t the normal thing that you do but a thing that does a different thing so you can do the wider thing.
Drawn from the player deck in the same way as policies, they formed a minority of cards that players would be able to employ tactically, (and importantly actively) to accompany their wider strategy with their policy cards. These could take the edge off an enemy attack, could aid your own attempts to steal away support from elsewhere, or could give you and edge or defence in some other way. The game now had the long term cunning and guile of politics through the methodical and cynical calculation of attracting supporters, the sweaty brow of political events through the literal event cards and the rarer but more catastrophic emergency cards, and then the ability to capture the actively Machiavellian streak that I’m sure all players want to replicate through the action cards.
The main structure of the game was done, at last.
Next step. TEST IT A LOT.