On Monday, several of us got together for a first play test of Corinne Goldberger’s Arab Spring board game. Corinne is developing the game as part of an undergraduate independent reading course at McGill University, and you’ll find her other posts on the topic here.
I thought the game (in which I played the Islamist opposition) went very well. On the first turn (December 2010) the opposition players, working together, managed to “occupy the square” in Yemen. We overthrew the government there a month later, but were immediately forced from power by a military coup (“counterrevolution”). Thereafter, state repression decimated the ranks of our activists in the country.
In February, we occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, and then overthrew the Egyptian regime in March. As the Islamist and secular forces jockeyed for position in anticipation of forthcoming elections there, our general level of cooperation declined. The elections were eventually won by the secularists.
In Many and June 2011 we made several attempts to mobilize an uprising in Libya, with no success. However, the general level of violence increased there, placing the country on the verge of civil war.
Efforts to mobilize in Morocco were offset by a great deal of regime patronage, bolstered by Saudi foreign aid. The Jordanian government also took efforts to undercut any opposition. Thereafter, we generally left the monarchical regimes alone, and concentrated on the beleaguered republics. Efforts to mobilize in Algeria were unsuccessful, but as in Libya violence mounted there too. In August, mass protests erupted in the Sudan—but we couldn’t quite topple the regime by the time the game ended in November (turn 12).
The basic game mechanics are solid, and gameplay is exciting. Strategy matters. The rules (notably the move sequence, and the ability to swap cards) produce an interesting combination of cooperation and rivalry between the two oppositions and between the two sets of regimes. While outcomes are certainly not identical to the real events of 2010-11 (it would be a rather dull game if the outcome were preordained), they are certainly similar in tone and type. At this point, what is largely needed is tweaking of the cards. We also decided to add small optional decks from which players can draw if countries are in civil war or once regimes have been overthrow, thereby expanding their range of options.
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Last week I had my long-awaited first playtest of the Arab Spring board game – and I think it was a success! Overall, as far as I can tell, it was a fairly typical first playtest experience in that the general game mechanics worked mostly as anticipated, but some cards, some rules, and some mechanics are in need of varying degrees of overhaul. There were also some markers missing from the game that were mostly an oversight on my part, such as violence markers and ways to denote when a country has its square occupied or has a transitional government.
I was very fortunate to have four people willing to playtest, leaving me free to take many, many pages of notes over the course of the game. My sincere thanks to the four playtesters: Professor Brynen, Tom Fisher, Jason and Kat. Below you will find my summary of this initial playtest and my next steps in the game’s development.
The board, designed by Tom Fisher, worked extremely well for the game. While we are still changing the details, the board facilitated the game with no major issues.
The game board used for the play test.
Each country has one box in which all pieces are played for said country. In the middle of each box is the area for the grievance tokens, surrounded by actvists (or lack thereof). The box for activists is split down the middle, with the secular players’ activists on one side and the Isalmists’ activists on the other. This box with activists represents the “main square” of a major city, like Tahrir Square or Pearl Roundabout. Surrounding this main square with activists are government troops, represented by tanks. There is also an overhang circle on the bottom of each square where each country’s money is held. These are the main sites of gameplay, and no major changes were needed to it after the playtest.
The latest version of the game board.
Some small changes have been made to the board since this particular iteration. The colour scheme has changed, the countries with oil (denoted with an oil derrick) have changed, and the places for the decks have changed to reflect the existence of only two decks, one for the regimes and one for the opposition. Following the playtest we also added a turn tracker, after deciding throughout the course of the game on the number of turns we would have. The last major change to the board at this point is the addition of “contagion” lines on the map, lines that denote geographically touching countries. These are relevant for the placement of demonstration effects following particular actions, such as overthrowing a regime in a country.
One thing I realized I overlooked in the planning of this game was how the game board would be set up asymmetrically at the beginning of the game to reflect differences in levels of discontent and differences in the extent of regimes’ repressive force on the ground. Each country will now start with different numbers of grievances, activists, tanks, and money, in a configuration that is relatively consistent with the realities of the region in December 2010.
Playing the game.
Generally the game went much as expected. In particular, I was pleased to watch players interact in the ways I anticipated for the game. One element of the game that facilitated player cooperation was the ability to swap a card with the other player of your type (regime or opposition) in lieu of playing a card. Early on in the game there was a lot of cooperation, with some wariness as to the other player’s intentions, but as the game progressed and victory points got closer, skeptcicism increased and cooperation was more difficult.
The violence aspect of the game was barely relevent to this particular game, with only two instances of double 1’s (which adds violence when rolled during a repression attempts as a result of particularly ineffective repression) being rolled throughout the entirety of the game. Initially there were three levels of violence in the game, with the third level being full civil war, but due to the lack of violence in this game I have changed it to two violence markers is a civil war. I will also be adding a card into each deck that gives a player the ability to escalate violence, to mirror the de-escalate violence cards that already exist.
A lot of tweaking of cards happened throughout the playtest. I think I underestimated how difficult it was to make cards extremely clear in such a small space, without leaving any room for ambiguity as to which countries a card can be played on or when a card could be played. I realized that some assumptions I had made in creating the cards (that regime players could only play cards on their respective countries, for instance) were not assumptions that the players made, thus making some of the card actions confusing. Some cards were overpowered, others were underpowered; some cards needed to exist that did not exist, other cards came up too frequently. And even if the card effects were balanced, other cards needed changes to the flavour text! The bottom line seems to be that adapting the decks is just a constant exercise throughout game development. Now I know.
The win/loss conditions and victory points system was the other element of the game that still underdeveloped at the time that we played the first game. While some of that was just regular tweaking, we also decided to scrap many of the overly complicated overriding win/loss conditions that existed as of my last blog post. Now the game is far more victory points oriented, with the only overriding conditions being: 1) if any monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game, the monarchical regime player loses; and 2) if all republics are not overthrown at the end of the game, the republican regime player wins. The former is to instil a sense of paranoia in the monarchical player, such that they have clear incentives to maintain the smaller monarchies (such as Bahrain) even at a financial cost to say, Saudi Arabia. The latter is a mirror to the monarchical lose condition, but also provides a concrete reason for the republican player to hold on to their less important republics.
The rest of the scoring relies on victory points. The main component to the victory points system is that each country is worth a designated amount of victory points to the player who controls said country. Therefore while regimes begin with all the victory points of the countries they hold, opposition begins with zero victory points. This too reflects initial assymetries. The result however is that opposition players need more opportunities to gain victory points than regimes do through gameplay.
One way this was dealt with was to give victory points to an opposition player when they successfully occupy a square or overthrow a regime, regardless of if they or the other opposition player ultimately ends up in control of the country and its associated victory points. After the playtest I increased the number of points opposition got for those actions, however I have also added victory points for the regime players when they successfully implement a counter-revolution or clear the square (both the results of a particular card in the regime deck).
The last victory points rule addition goes to affect the monarchical player’s incentive structure, reflecting the monarchies’ interests during the Arab Spring. That is, at the end of the game, the monarchical player gains one victory point if Libya is overthrown, and gains two victory points if Syria is overthrown. However, the monarchical player loses two victory points if Egypt is overthrown at the end of the game.
Plans for the Future
I am currently in the process of making changes to the cards used in the game, as explained above. The next step is a comprehensive list of rules and game mechanics that are sufficient to explain to someone new to the game everything that needs to happen. After that, more playtesting!