Late last year I was approached by Richard Barbrook to design a political megagame, potentially for UK Labour Party activists to practice negotiation skills and practice balancing ideology and pragmatism. The inspiration for the game was to come from Chris Mullin’s political thriller ‘A Very British Coup’ published in 1982 and depicting a fantastical scenario of a principled and popular left-wing labour leader (Harry Perkins) sweeping to power in an unexpected election victory as a discredited and failing Tory government collapsed under a plethora of scandals.
The action of the story was all about the how ‘The Establishment’ – the bête noire of the Left – comprising, press barons, the old boy network, the security services and the military, egged on by Foreign Influences (a Republican-led USA) would conspire to bring down a popular socialist government by foul means and fake news. The book was dramatised by Channel 4 in 1988, and I well remember enjoying it immensely at the time.
Clearly such a fantasic scenario could never be enacted in real life.
Designing a purely political game has a number of issues that affect the megagame design. The first step, of course, was to build the game environment and Richard and others helpfully created a list of Labour ‘Factions’ of the 1980s who would represent the majority of the player teams. Of course only having Labour Factions as teams would miss the important element in any game of an active adversary – and the scenario described in the book has some very clear adversaries. So it was obvious from the outset that the primary dynamic of the game would be a larger number of Labour party factions negotating and interacting, with a smaller group of ‘Establishment’ player teams providing challenges and attempting to exacerbate the infighting and bring influence to bear to de-rail the left-wing legislative programme.
But what would the Factions be negotiating about? What would be the role of the Cabinet? How would players interact with each other? Key megagame design questions.
And this is pretty much where any megagame design has to part company with the narrative of a novel, play or film. Megagames have to be open-ended rather than scripted, and the participants must be given real agency in the game. So whilst the game is inspired by the novel it cannot (and should not) attempt to become a re-enactment of it. A coup might or might not happen based entirely on the player activities and interactions. This is an important aspect of game design – works of fiction are not (or at least rarely) amenable to good gamification straight out of the pages. It is important to remember this. Just because characters exist in the fiction does not necessarily mean they would have agency in the game context.
As part of my research I re-read the 1983 Labour Manifesto, and the description of the real aspirations of a fairly leftish party of the time (or ‘far left’ by comparison to the Blair years). This was the context of Mullin’s original story, where it was the Perkins’ Government’s programme of ‘dangerious left-wing dogma’ that the Establishment was trying to counter. So it seemed obvious to me that a key focus would be on implementing the manifesto. Party Faction teams would therefore be arguing and manoevering to have their favoured policies enacted as early as possible in the life of the government.
It also quickly became obvious that the Cabinet would not be played by players because this would erode the role of the faction teams as the main drivers of the game (remember the game aim of maximising the opportunity for practicing negotiation skills). So the game would have the various factions seeking to influence and ‘control’ cabinet members, and use that as leverage in the important game process of setting the legislative agenda.
The game, for the Labour Factions is therefore on four levels and members of the teams must manage their time to work on multiple levels simultaneously:
- Influencing Cabinet – and the (non-played) Cabinet members whose influence weighs in significantly in the game on behalf of the faction.
- Influencing the order that policies are enacted in parliament. The game timescale covers several years, because although a week is a long time in politics, legislation grinds slowly. And the measures that get passed have Impact (for good).
- Influencing the vote in parliament, both directly and indirectly. The weakened Tory Opposition is still present (and played) in parliament so there are opportunities for cross-party agreements.
- And at the same time agreeing compromises and deals with the other factions to get things done.
Obviously, the Government as a whole will get little or nothing done, unless it can manage its infighting and cut deals – ‘log rolling’ if you will – the game allows players to have a lot of fun with doctrinal and principles arguments and infighting – certainly this has come to the fore in playtests. And it is entertaining. However, unless they find ways of pulling together, the party’s impact will be small, and consequently its public support dwindle under the constant assault of a hostile press. Too many individual victories can lead to group defeat, and an early General Election (= A Bad Thing).
The Establishment Adversaries also influence Cabinet members (through blackmail or other dirty tricks) and can influence the Impact of legislation and the popularity of the government through the power of the Press Barons. I won’t go into detail here about exactly all the things the Establishment can do (spoilers).
One of my main changes over the original story is in how the Establishment works – so rather than a monolithic extra-democratic power bloc, as described in the novel, in this game they also have their own internal pressures, objectives and concerns, and organising a coup has to be the culmination of resolving their own internal factional issues. In short, the more chaotic the Labour Government, the harder it is to organise a coup – but the better the Government does in furthering its objectives the easier the Establishment finds it to pull together for their version of ‘The Greater Good’. This balancing is a core structure in the game.
So, in this megagame, A Very British Coup, the player interaction does not require much in the way of game mechanisms – such mechanisms as there are – are all simple and pretty self-evident – players can turn up and understand the way the game works very quickly. And then get on with the negotiating and haggling and interacting. The game is heavy on talking and interacting and light on mechanism.
Personally, I’m pretty excited by this game – its a new subject area for me, and political games are always extremely entertaining – and I’m really looking forward to seeing the game system play out in its full form.
If this seems interesting then there is a chance to see how this all works, by coming and playing in the first run of the game in Cambridge on Saturday 4 August 2018.