Good Political Game Design


  • Pitcrew

    What game design leads to the best political play amongst PCs?

    I remember on the old WORA forum three or four really excellent threads discussing how best to design politics in a game. As those ancient texts of knowledge are lost to the ages, I wondered if we could discuss it again and pull up some kernels of insight into it.

    A few of the things I remember was advice on deciding exactly what the scope of possibility is. If PCs are jockeying with each other for political favor with the king but there is no hope of revelling and taking over, the designer needs to make that clear upfront and the design will look different than a game focused on war between factions. (The author I recall suggested PCs fighting over who gets to sit closer to the royalty at the dinner table and that ways to gain prestige are trying to dress as similarly to the crown Prince and princess as possible.). Another tidbit I remember was designing the game to be lead at most be 6 to 8 PCs and allowing other PCs to serve as functionaries but able to challenge for a spot at the big boys/girls table.


  • Politics

    We should start with defining what we view as good political play amongst PCs, so we are discussing the same thing.


  • Politics

    @Olsson said in Good Political Game Design:

    We should start with defining what we view as good political play amongst PCs, so we are discussing the same thing.

    We should start here, and then move to "will you be implementing PvP politics?", and then move into "to what end and why?"


  • TV & Movies

    @Ominous Limited scope, clear objectives, clear standards for how things are 'won' or decided, and a limited cast of primary players is pretty much all stuff I can sign on to.

    There were always be other stuff going on, that falls into the realm of simple interpersonal relations, clique politics, etc, which staff cannot do anything whatsoever about. But for the actual game sanctioned part of things, you want a very clear structure or no one will know what to do or how anything is decided and it will ratchet up the paranoia factor that much faster.


  • Coder

    @Ominous said in Good Political Game Design:

    I remember on the old WORA forum three or four really excellent threads discussing how best to design politics in a game. As those ancient texts of knowledge are lost to the ages

    If you can remember enough about who and when, or the name of the thread, I might be able to pick it out of the sea of insanity that is the WORA flatfile.


  • Pitcrew

    @Thenomain Sadly I cannot, and the threads didn't have any organizational logic to them - they were in different forums and were from different times.


  • Pitcrew

    Things, in my opinion, to remember about creating interesting, playable, and sustainable political setups in games:

    1. There must be finite, meaningful, and necessary resources which cannot be evenly distributed to all interested parties for no cost to any one or group of those parties. Politics is, at its core, how societies answer the question of "How do you decide what to do when you can't get everything that you want?"

    2. There must be some staging of the setting that incentivizes some level of cooperation, but at the same time incentivizes some level of competition between PCs. Players need incentives on both ends to occupy that happy space in the middle, where PCs are supported in having distinct goals and needs, some of which can only be obtained through working together, and some of which /require/ competing with other PCs or setting factions. You can also use penalties for this, but penalties are a harder sell for players OOC, and often create resentment and the desire to 'beat the system'.

    3. The setting should be explained and concrete enough that players largely have similar conceptions of the worth of resources, the expectations of factional behavior, and the consequences of actions they can take. This does not mean players need to know everything about the setting, but if players can't generally judge what the cost and consequences of actions are LIKELY to be, and they don't agree on the culture of the setting, or the worth of whatever resources drive the conflicts, then you will have unproductive OOC disagreements, and IC confusion - both of which harm the ability to design, implement, and respond to political actions. Ideally, you want players to be able to interact with the setting with as little hand-holding needed; political play flows best when people can act, see the consequences, respond, etc. in a smooth flow. The more bottlenecks you have in waiting for responses to "Can I do this?" and "Do I know how X Faction might view Y action", the slower and less satisfying things are likely to be. You ESPECIALLY do not want your political actions and procedures less well-defined or understood than your physical conflict ones. Players will default to interacting with the least painful system, and the one that gives the most predictable gain, and if that's physical combat, then that's what people are going to use.

    4. There should be no absolute wins or losses. Politics needs to keep churning to stay engaging and useful - you may be on top one day, and on bottom the next, and while you may have some strengths as a character or faction that remain, you should never be able to either rest on your laurels OR be written off as a threat. There should always be a way to fall from grace, and there should always be a way to rise from nothing. This doesn't mean that every shoemaker should have an equal chance to become King, assuming a medievalish setting, but it does mean that any PC should always have actions open to them to improve their lot, and they should always have risks that they can lose to fall farther, no matter what.


  • Pitcrew

    I agree with everything @Pyrephox just said... but in particular I want to call out a couple of points that people seem to often forget:

    @Pyrephox said in Good Political Game Design:

    1. There must be some staging of the setting that incentivizes some level of cooperation, but at the same time incentivizes some level of competition between PCs.

    Many political systems that I hear about people designing seem like they could be solved pretty easily by a group of players coming in and each specializing in one thing, and then joining forces (one player has an iron mine, one player has a merchant republic for lots of gold, and one player has super Sparta for great soldiers, they join forces and they have a well-funded army of badasses in awesome armor, and they can trump any single player who only has one of the three resources). There has to be incentives to hoarding, and there has to be incentives to sharing, so that sharing happens, but on a limited basis, and there is more incentive to share out to multiple people in small amounts rather than one person in large amounts.

    1. The setting should be explained and concrete enough that players largely have similar conceptions of the worth of resources, the expectations of factional behavior, and the consequences of actions they can take.

    So very, very, very much this. Your players need to understand the world well enough to be able to guess with some accuracy how the world will react to their actions (or inactions). Granted, there will always be the people who will think "My speech on how clone troopers are slaves is so awesome that the Emperor will see the light of reason," but so long as most of the rest of the game's population realizes "Hey, we're in the middle of a war to the death (relatively) against a massive droid army, and we've got this amazing resource of awesome warriors... we're not going to throw it away," then you're still winning. But the world/culture/setting has to be well enough realized and explained that this is clear to most people.



  • My two cents. Good political game design: Diplomacy, Settlers of Catan, Civilization board games. Where the entire table is set up and everyone is chattering about plots and sub plots and trying to agree to disagree. Works well in TT RPGs, the group can OOC plot and plan to their hearts content, even against each other.

    It ends for me as a MU* level RPG. For any good political game that is PvP in a Mu* setting, it is either really complicated strategy game, with lots of +requests or reports and staff determination, which really just cuts off the RP part. .. Or, the ones I have enjoyed were the ones where faction heads viewed their position as half OOC involvement. Sphere 1 needed something from Sphere 2, FH 1 had told FH 2 players were doing things, FH 2 could set up obstacles along the way. Without that, then as on most games, there are just a handful of people enjoying the politics and twice as many people hating the system and lots of OOC dramas that no one really needs. The ones with OOC involvement usually comes down to player involvement, and one sphere usually wins by having more active players, the others give. The group gets tired of that faction always seeming ahead and moves to others, favoring which ever group is next filled the most. And still in the end, lots of OOC dramas.

    I tend towards PvE and competing for favors and jockeying for position on the same side which is fine, but not quite the level of politics I think most strategy political RP folks are after.

    This probably doesn't help, but good political game design is best for small group of friends that can play it as a game and when feelings get too hurt, they can put it aside and play some other game together to have fun, like Mario Party.


  • Pitcrew

    I am highly interested in this topic but I think I have more questions than answers. So...people with answers, keep at it. I like hearing people's ideas on the topic.


  • Pitcrew

    Building off of what @Pyrephox began. I think there are a few things that are left out:

    First, a diffuse power structure. This is what most people are getting at with resources. If the resources are spread out, than no one holds all the power.

    Second, the power structure needs to be dynamic and changeable. In too many games that spout being political, including most L&L games, it's really, really hard to change who is in power. Firan was horrible at this, especially in later years. The clan leaders held all the cards and more minor nobles didn't really have much to bring to the table. Politicking was limited to between clans, meaning that 95% of the game population was excluded from that game play. Was it possible to take over a clan? Sure. It happened a few times, but not nearly often enough to make an interesting political game. Status in WoD works a bit better, for a model of a political game, but you need to make rising in Status powerful enough that it's something to do, and just like in real life, it needs to be really hard to stay at the top.


  • TV & Movies

    @Lisse24 said in Good Political Game Design:

    Second, the power structure needs to be dynamic and changeable. In too many games that spout being political, including most L&L games, it's really, really hard to change who is in power. Firan was horrible at this, especially in later years. The clan leaders held all the cards and more minor nobles didn't really have much to bring to the table. Politicking was limited to between clans, meaning that 95% of the game population was excluded from that game play. Was it possible to take over a clan? Sure. It happened a few times, but not nearly often enough to make an interesting political game.

    I keep wanting to make a permanent version of this I can link to, but I've brought it up in a couple places: L&L games tend to hit the trap of doing a very structured, CK2-like concept of feudalism, where dukes rule counts and counts rule barons or lords etc. Or Clan Leaders rule irrelevant noble families that no one cared about at all (Firan). Almost inevitably, the power of these figures is exponential moving up the hierarchy.

    This is both wrong from even the slightest look at history, and stupid from a play design perspective. You want your primary actors to be at parity. Now, maybe it's fine to have only your Dukes etc sitting at the main council (and, see above, I'm in favor of a primary council-like entity that probably maxes out at around 10 people), but all the lesser lords should have pretty much comparable resources, so that their loyalty and assistance is something you rely on, not something you demand.

    And to date, basically every L&L game ever gets a big fat F on this one.


  • Pitcrew

    @bored said in Good Political Game Design:

    I keep wanting to make a permanent version of this I can link to, but I've brought it up in a couple places: L&L games tend to hit the trap of doing a very structured, CK2-like concept of feudalism, where dukes rule counts and counts rule barons or lords etc. Or Clan Leaders rule irrelevant noble families that no one cared about at all (Firan). Almost inevitably, the power of these figures is exponential moving up the hierarchy.

    This is both wrong from even the slightest look at history, and stupid from a play design perspective. You want your primary actors to be at parity. Now, maybe it's fine to have only your Dukes etc sitting at the main council (and, see above, I'm in favor of a primary council-like entity that probably maxes out at around 10 people), but all the lesser lords should have pretty much comparable resources, so that their loyalty and assistance is something you rely on, not something you demand.

    And to date, basically every L&L game ever gets a big fat F on this one.

    People who don't know history always forget how weak monarchies were before Absolutism.

    Anyway, right now, this is how Arx is set up, too. And like every other L&L game, politics has been hoarded in the hands of a few. HOWEVER, Arx has Dominion coming in and I'm really interested to see how that will change things on that game. Already, houses can improve their incomes. What happens when a Duchy has control of a military larger than their lord? The cynical side of me says that peer pressure to be "nice" will keep everything static, but I'm really hopeful that a Duke/Duchess at some point decides to pay less taxes, because what's the ruling family going to do?


  • TV & Movies

    When I said every game fails at it, I really meant every game.

    I think it usually comes from the top-down way people are likely to write out their theme. People write from the highest tier to the lowest, putting the latter in as afterthoughts and filler/roster fodder/etc. The story in their mind is about the cast they originally write, the King and his advisors, rival big lords, the awesome Prince McBadasses, etc.

    Then after a while, someone thinks 'Oh yeah, well, I guess we better make House Pigfarmer so uh, people have something to app?'

    It's not pure malicious favoritism/saving the good shit for staffalts (although that's usually part of it), but just the inevitable result of all the juice getting pumped into the initial NPC/'top PCs likely to be played by staff or staff friends lineup' and other things being an afterthought.


  • Pitcrew

    @Lisse24 said in Good Political Game Design:

    Anyway, right now, this is how Arx is set up, too. And like every other L&L game, politics has been hoarded in the hands of a few. HOWEVER, Arx has Dominion coming in and I'm really interested to see how that will change things on that game. Already, houses can improve their incomes. What happens when a Duchy has control of a military larger than their lord? The cynical side of me says that peer pressure to be "nice" will keep everything static, but I'm really hopeful that a Duke/Duchess at some point decides to pay less taxes, because what's the ruling family going to do?

    I loathe the idea of a family stockpiling military assets in order to frienemy their ruling house. Sure it's realistic, but do we really want controlling levels of power in the hands of whoever decides to ignore political maneuvering, social warfare, diplomacy & playing the game in favor of stockpiling the military stat? I get it, Arx is becoming more PvP by the minute. Here's hoping the ruling houses are given some flexibility with regards to limiting the aspirations of those houses beneath them, or what a headache that's going to be.


  • Pitcrew

    @Lisse24 said in Good Political Game Design:

    @bored said in Good Political Game Design:

    I keep wanting to make a permanent version of this I can link to, but I've brought it up in a couple places: L&L games tend to hit the trap of doing a very structured, CK2-like concept of feudalism, where dukes rule counts and counts rule barons or lords etc. Or Clan Leaders rule irrelevant noble families that no one cared about at all (Firan). Almost inevitably, the power of these figures is exponential moving up the hierarchy.

    This is both wrong from even the slightest look at history, and stupid from a play design perspective. You want your primary actors to be at parity. Now, maybe it's fine to have only your Dukes etc sitting at the main council (and, see above, I'm in favor of a primary council-like entity that probably maxes out at around 10 people), but all the lesser lords should have pretty much comparable resources, so that their loyalty and assistance is something you rely on, not something you demand.

    And to date, basically every L&L game ever gets a big fat F on this one.

    People who don't know history always forget how weak monarchies were before Absolutism.

    Anyway, right now, this is how Arx is set up, too. And like every other L&L game, politics has been hoarded in the hands of a few.

    This isn't how it is in Arx, and in fact we have counseled High Lords that their action would lead to their downfall because at any level of vassalage, the combined might of the vassals outweighs the liege. If the HL of FactionX did something stupidly aggressive against his vassal and the others decided that was not an ok precedent and they banded together, they would absolutely outman the high lord.


  • Politics

    @Pandora said in Good Political Game Design:

    I loathe the idea of a family stockpiling military assets in order to frienemy their ruling house. Sure it's realistic, but do we really want controlling levels of power in the hands of whoever decides to ignore political maneuvering, social warfare, diplomacy & playing the game in favor of stockpiling the military stat?

    It depends on how the game manages the military stat.


  • Pitcrew

    @Pyrephox Good stuff!

    Also it seems people agree that the ideal structure is giving only slight increments in power to higher ranks in a feudal system.


  • Pitcrew

    @Ganymede said in Good Political Game Design:

    @Pandora said in Good Political Game Design:

    I loathe the idea of a family stockpiling military assets in order to frienemy their ruling house. Sure it's realistic, but do we really want controlling levels of power in the hands of whoever decides to ignore political maneuvering, social warfare, diplomacy & playing the game in favor of stockpiling the military stat?

    It depends on how the game manages the military stat.

    The argument is about a single family being able to flex on their ruling lord solely through military might. If this is able to come to pass, it doesn't matter how the game manages the military stat, it's being managed poorly.


  • Politics

    @Pandora said in Good Political Game Design:

    The argument is about a single family being able to flex on their ruling lord solely through military might. If this is able to come to pass, it doesn't matter how the game manages the military stat, it's being managed poorly.

    How so?

    I don't mean to be obtuse, but this has happened. Historically. It is the tipping point, generally, for the power of the ruling lord when a challenger can muster that much might. But it has happened.

    If the player of the ruling lord is so poor at it that one of his vassals came muster up the military might to overthrow him, why prevent it? It seems no different, to me, then when a WoD vampire stages a successful coup over his Prince.


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