How to Game Politics

This week I thought I’d delve into my game designing past. Some games start trends, some games spawn imitators and some games are just so strange that no designer can ever go there again.

This is a tale about one such game – Election – a surreal political strategy game. Perhaps I should have called it Desperate Politicians.

It started out as a board game for six players that I designed when I was 15. Each player would start out as a party worker and move along the board hoping to land on a by-election square. As soon as that happened, they’d battle to become selected as their party’s candidate and, if successful, fight the election. Failure would keep them on the outside board, waiting for the next election opportunity. Success would get them to the House of Commons and the inside board, where they’d face another set of challenges – being promoted and demoted until one of the players reached the ultimate goal of Prime Minister.

It was always a quirky game – any game that has six political parties tends to be. For realism, I had to make it easier for Labour or Conservative candidates to get elected. But to make it fair to the other players I er … had to get creative.

And when I bought my first computer … I could become even more creative. This was 1979-1981, so there were limitations on what a games designer could do. Graphics were poor by today’s standards (360×192 pixel full screen display) and were heavy users of memory. When your computer only had 48kb of memory and floppy disks were only just becoming affordable, you had to be very selective about the use of graphics. So I went for a text based game.

But, freed from the restrictions of dice and board, I could start using algorithms to work out probabilities, and have a far freer approach to the paths players took through the game.

For realism, I randomly allocated the by-elections – some were safe Conservative seats, some safe Labour, some even safe Liberal. Others were marginals. Each candidate’s vote was influenced by the national standing of their party, the previous result of the seat and the candidate’s personal popularity. Thus even an unpopular candidate could get elected at a safe seat when their party was riding high in the polls.

So, how did I make it fair to the minor parties? For one, it was easier to get selected as a candidate. The more popular the party, the harder it was to get a foot on the ladder. But, once elected to Parliament, the faster the rise. So a party worker for a fringe party had a good chance of becoming party leader, but then had it tough to build that party’s popularity.

Tough, but possible. With a few tweaks – like turning the surreal dial of this particular universe to eleven.

But first an explanation as to how a player moved up and down the polls. Each quarter a crisis would arrive and the player would be asked to comment or propose a solution. The more sensible – or controversial – the proposal, the higher your profile became. Sensible politicians rose within their party ranks (obviously a fantasy scenario:) and the higher the player’s popularity the more their party’s ranking became linked to their own (i.e. a lowly party hack could put his foot in it and the party ratings wouldn’t budge, but the utterings of a popular party figure could move the polls considerably)

Also the player could, at any time, choose to address rallies, appear on TV etc. The outcome of these events were random, potentially disastrous, potentially beneficial and often surreal. What can I say? It was my game and I like surreal. Candidates might display sparkling wit, become ‘tired and emotional’ or, occasionally, head-butt TV presenters. An action which would destroy a sensible politician but enhance the cult following of a fringe candidate. Sometimes I think Sylvio Berlusconi escaped from my game, or at least played it obsessively in the 80s.

If a player’s cult status grew to a sufficient level then a non-parliamentary path to power opened up – The Revolution. According to the player’s chosen party a cabal of supporters – perhaps the Barnsley and District Working Men’s Club, perhaps the 3rd Aldershot Provisional Girl Guides – would implore the player to lead their forces on an armed march on the capital. The game was designed to be flexible.

I loved playing this game and so did the reviewer for Apple User. It was bizarre, and it was great fun. You could play it sensible, you could play it drunk. There were a thousand and one routes to Downing Street and some of them included tanks and a bulldozer. What more could anyone want?

And to finish, here are some sample political crises and their potential solutions:

Your parents, uncles, grandfather, three sisters and twelve cousins are arrested on suspicion of spying for the Russians do you:

a. Distance yourself from your family
b. Refuse to comment
c. Protest your family’s innocence
d. Claim you were adopted

Gunmen have been cornered at your favourite restaurant. They hold 17 hostages and demand free passage to Liechtenstein. Do you:

a. Eat elsewhere.
b. Negotiate yourself
c. Send in the SAS
d. Let the police handle the situation

French farmers blockade the import of British lamb. Do you:

a. Let the European Commission arbitrate
b. Ban French apples
c. Threaten to withdraw from the Eurovision Song Contest
d. Re-open the English claim to the French Crown and march on Poitiers

Even the sensible solutions carried a risk. As in real life, events could sometimes take an unforeseen turn and the Press were always capricious. The program would scan the entrails of a virtual goat and give its verdict. Some candidates would emerge Teflon coated, and others would be forced to join the House of Lords. Oh, the ignominy.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf

Out Now!
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.

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How to Game Politics — 5 Comments

  1. Update that for a modern computer with good graphics and even I, who likes nothing more mentally challenging than solitaire and ma jong will play it!

    Or let’s revive the board game and play it virtually. I claim ownership of the dice!