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Part 8: A Surreal Game and a New Theory of Evolution
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.
But first I must posit a New Theory of Evolution. A theory so neat it explains both the disappearance of the dinosaurs and why Election spawned no imitators. Think about it, why is the evolutionary tree filled with so many excellent species that suddenly died out - the trilobites, T Rex, Stegosaur, Sabre-toothed tigers et al - and yet so many truly boring creatures like slugs and woodlice survived?
The answer is simple. Forget 'survival of the fittest' and think 'selection of the fittest.' This universe is not the universe but a trial universe and the purpose of evolution is to select species for the real universe. Thus, when a creature reaches perfection - has just the right length of sabre-tooth, the artistically perfect number of plates along his back - it's removed from our universe and takes its place in the next.
And so it was with Election. The game was so perfect its mould had to be broken.
At least that's my story.
So, what about the game? Well, 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. Then they'd try to become selected as their party's candidate and, if selected, fight the election. Once inside the House of Commons, for indeed this is a game set in Britain, they'd fight to ascend the greasy pole and become 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.
Cue the computer and the endless possibilities that came with it. 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.
But it was possible. And often more fun. 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 were often 'tired and emotional' and occasionally head-butted TV presenters. Actions which would destroy a sensible politician but enhance the cult following of the fringe candidates.
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.