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Gaming the Arab Spring – more play testing


Setting up the game.

We had another playtest of Corinne Goldberger’s Arab Spring game at ICAMES last night. Once again, I thought it went extremely well, and—more importantly—our group of new players all picked it up very quickly. All of the basic game mechanics worked smoothly, or need only minor tweaking. Next she’ll face the challenge of writing up the rules in a clear and effective way.

In the game, the two opposition players joined forces to successfully “occupying the square” in Yemen in December 2010. The game uses a Freedom in the Galaxy -like domino effect mechanism, so the action there had the effect of generating grievances and activists in other countries, much like the informational cascades which characterized the real Arab Spring.


The meeples represent activists, belonging to either the secular (left half of the box) or Islamist (right half of the box) opposition. The disks in the centre indicate social grievances, colour coded to match the activists: white (or black, we didn’t have enough white) = youth, red = workers, blue = middle class, red = rural farmers. The tanks indicate the repressive power of the state (black = republic, purple = monarchy). The coins represent resources. This is early in the game, and the Yemeni opposition has just  “occupied the square” (indicated here by a yellow disk, although eventually the game will use a purpose designed card or other indicator). [Click to enlarge.]

The republican regime player lacked the card necessary to “clear the square,” and within a month the country tipped into full-scale revolt, causing President Saleh to flee. Closely-fought elections followed a few months later, which the Islamist opposition player won.

At this point, the number of activists and grievances was growing in both Egypt and Sudan. The opposition players decided to focus on Sudan, where they had a slight edge and where the regime had less repressive capability (tanks). They occupied the square too, then overthrew the regime, while an attempted counter-coup by pro-regime forces failed. Efforts by opposition forces to hold quick elections were stymied by conservative judges appointed under the earlier dictatorship.

While the overthrow of two republics in quick succession certainly made the republics feel very vulnerable, it may have been a blessing in disguise. With opposition energies focused on two low-value countries (both Sudan and Yemen are only worth 2 victory points), the republics launched a series of reforms and repression in Egypt (6 VP) intended to reduce grievances and eliminate activists. In the Arab Spring, you need both to successfully challenge regimes: grievances have no effect unless there are activists of a similar kind (youth, workers, middle class, and rural), and activists are of no value if there are no significant social grievances to play upon. Egypt also increased military expenditures, thereby gaining an additional “tank” (signifying the repressive strength of the state).

With the Mubarak regime in Egypt consolidating its position, both opposition players then went after Algeria. The Algerian regime responded by using its oil money to co-opt some opposition activists, and then—in a striking display of the ruthless efficiency of the mukhabarat state (or good dice-rolling) arrested all of the others.  Tunisia clamped down for good measure too, while Libya announced new social programmes designed to address popular discontent.

Through much of the first two-thirds of the game, the monarchical player had felt quite secure. Opposition energies were largely focused on the republics. The Gulf monarchies were awash with resources, in part because of high oil prices. Morocco and Jordan were a little more vulnerable, but generally any growth of activists or grievances there were met by appropriate responses quite quickly.


At this point in the game, the governments of both Yemen and Sudan have been overthrown (we’ve indicated this with a black disk for now, but it will have a proper marker eventually). Egypt is full of Islamist activists, but regime reforms (supported by petrodollar foreign aid) have reduced popular grievances so their appeal is limited. Algeria, with its large number of worker (red) and farmer (green) grievances and activists will thus be the next target of the opposition. The monarchical player has noticed the growing number of grievances in Morocco and Jordan (bottom right), and will soon take steps to address these. [Click to enlarge.]

Then it all started to go wrong. In the tiny island kingdom of Bahrain, a combination of sectarian tensions and youth activism was beginning to challenge the regime. Demonstrators occupied Pearl Roundabout. Saudi Arabia sent in massive military forces to help quell the protests. This however, wasn’t enough. As violence mounted, the protestors forced the Khalifa dynasty from power. A revolution in the Gulf! Who would have thought it possible?

The shockwaves were immense. Protestors in Saudi Arabia tried to mobilize, but failed. However, in Oman they were more successful. Moreover, under the game rules the monarchy player, who otherwise would be in contention for first place, automatically loses if a single monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game.

It all came down to the last turn, November 2011. The monarchy player hoped that a “counter-revolution” of royalist officers and foreign mercenaries in the armed forces would be able to turn back the clock in Bahrain—or, if that failed, trigger a civil war which the better-armed royalists might win. They were unable to do so, however.

Thus the game ended with the opposition players neck-and-neck at around a half-dozen victory points each. The royalists had many more, but the loss of Bahrain meant that they automatically lost the game. The republican regimes had 18 VP, and so were the winners.

Despite the apparently large winning margin, the game had been very close—indeed, the republics spend the first half of the game convinced they were a losing cause, the oppositions had been quite buoyant until things began to bog down for them mid-game, and the monarchies went from a strong position to losing in the last few months/turns of the game.  Had Egypt fallen the republican player would have  lost 6 VP, and the opposition players could have gained as many as 10 VP, entirely changing the outcome. Thus the game manages to both reflect real-world dynamics but to give everyone a real chance at “winning.” I’m really impressed with the design.

Gaming the “Arab Spring” – A First Playtest

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.

* * *

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

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.

Arab Spring copy 3

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 Arab Spring game board (latest version, as of March 18).

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.

The Set-up

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.

The Gameplay

Playing the game.

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

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!

Corinne Goldberger 

Gaming the “Arab Spring,” Part 3

Below is the third instalment of Corinne Goldberger’s developer diary for her current “Arab Spring” game project. You’ll find an explanation of the project and the other instalments here and here.

 * * *

If there is one thing I have learned about game design thus far it is that every element of a game needs to be extremely carefully thought out and reasoned. Making sure that the effects of a given action retain fidelity to what has occurred (or might have occurred) in the Arab Spring gets increasingly difficult as mechanics begin to interact with each other and multiple players.

Demotix 24th June 2012

So, with the basics of the game now laid out, I wanted to take some time to explain some of the nuance of the more complex mechanics of the game and the decision-making process behind them.


Repressive force is one of the main tools of the regime players. Though regimes can be overthrown, there is a strongly imbalanced power-dynamic (at least at the outset of the game, and before major protests) between regimes and opposition that is largely due to a regime’s capacity and will to repress.

In this game, regimes place individual repressive force pieces (represented by a tank) in their countries through cardplay. A repressive force on the ground does not automatically mean there is violence, reflecting a phase of generally peaceful protests in that country. To actively repress – that is, to try to remove activists – a regime player must play a “Repression” “, a card that will appear frequently throughout the regime deck.

When a regime plays a “Repression” card, the following takes place:

  1. The regime rolls the same number of dice as they have repression pieces in that country. For example, if they have five repressive force pieces in the country they want to repress in, they will roll five dice.
  2. For every 5 or 6 the regime player rolls, one activist is removed in that country as a result of successful repression.
  3. If the regime player rolls a 1, they must add one grievance, as a result of unsuccessful targeting of protesters.
  4. If the regime player rolls two 1’s, they must add one grievance and the violence level of the country increases by one. (Violence levels explained below.)

At this point the repressive phase is over for the time being. There is a chance that upon play-testing this I change the numbers required to repress effectively, if it seems to be successful infrequently enough that it disincentivizes the regime player from doing it.

“Occupying the Square” and Revolutions

The main goal of the opposition players is to overthrow as many of the regimes as possible. To do so they must generate (utilize) grievances and mobilize activists. Grievances and activists break down into different sectors that represent different sectors of society and their respective issues. Currently the sectors are Youth, Workers, and Rural grievances and activists.

Once an opposition player has an “Occupy the Sqare” card, they may choose to attempt to occupy the square (like Tahrir Square in Egypt, or the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain) to generate mass protests in the capital. The play goes as follows:

1. The opposition player rolls the same number of dice as they have total grievance pieces, less the number of repression pieces in play. For example, if there are seven (7) total grievances and three (3) repressive forces, the opposition player rolls four (4). The opposition player must have the corresponding activist type to count a given sector of grievances. So if it is the Islamist player trying to occupy the square, there must be at least one Islamist student activist to include student grievances in the number of dice to be rolled. The two opposition players may ally and combine their activists if previously agreed to.

Example 1: There is one (1) Islamist student activist, two (2) Islamist worker activists, and one (1) Islamist farmer activist. There are three (3) student grievances, two (2) worker grievances, and two (2) rural grievances. There are three (3) repression pieces in play. The total number of dice rolled by the Islamist player would be four (4), as calculated by [(3+2+2)-3].

Example 2: If during the repressive phase the regime manages to remove the Islamist student activist, those grievances would not count, and as such the number of dice they could roll would only be 1 [(2+2)-1]. Therefore it is in the best interest of the opposition player to wait until they have a substantial number of grievances and activists to attempt to take over the square.

2. If the opposition player rolls a 6, they are successful in creating mass protests with a protest camp in the square.

3. If they are successful, the opposition player adds two activists to the country where they are occupying the square, and may also add an activist to any two adjacent countries, representing the regional anti-regime momentum gained and the demonstration effects on surrounding countries.

Once the square has been occupied, the opposition players may attempt to overthrow the regime on the following turn with a “Revolution!” card. This follows the same process as above in terms of dice rolls and success conditions. If they are successful, the player may add two activists to any two adjacent countries.

Violence Levels

Violence levels will be a fairly simple component to the game. The level of violence can increase in a particular country at a given time, either due to incompetent and/or unsuccessful attempts at repression by the regime (if two 1’s are rolled when repressing, as explained above) or as a result of particular cards. When the violence level increases, one violence marker will be placed on the country. When there are three violence markers, the country enters into a civil war. Certain cards will not be able to be played in times of high violence (more than one violence marker), such as “Civil Society Building”, while other cards may only be played in times of violence or civil war, such as “NATO Intervention.”

If a civil war breaks out, a card containing the rules for civil war is placed on the country in question, denoting which countries are at war. If there is a country in a civil war, each turn there is a civil war phase before regular gameplay in which direct fighting occurs. If there are multiple countries in civil wars, the civil war phase happens country by country.

  1. Regime rolls as many dice as they have repression pieces (tanks). Each 5 or 6 they roll an opposition player loses an activist.
  2. The opposition players with activists in said country roll as many dice as they have activists. For each 6 they roll the opposition loses a repression piece (tank).
  3. The victim of the attack decides what piece to remove. So for example, the opposition player can decide which sector(s) their activist(s) is/are removed from.

 Civil war ends when either side concedes or a side loses all of its activists or repressive forces. There may also be cards that de-escalate violence or end a civil war in some way. I expect civil war to be a relatively rare occurrence, but with a very high cost to all parties involved. 

Win Conditions

The game ends when a certain number of turns have passed (exact number to be determined). The goal of the game for all players is to end the game with the most number of victory points. The main way points are scored is by control of countries. Larger and more politically important countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, will be worth six victory points each, countries of medium importance are worth four victory points each, while smaller and less significant countries will be worth two victory points each. Regime players will start with many victory points and will  lose some number of them over the course of the game, whereas opposition players will start with no victory points but gain them over the course of the game. A victory point can also be gained from a few particular actions and cards, such as being the main opposition (most number of activists) responsible for overthrowing a regime.

Beyond this there are a few overriding win and lose conditions:

  • Monarchies: The monarchical regimes player will win if none of the monarchies were overthrown over the course of the game. However they will lose, regardless of victory points, if more than one monarchy is overthrown at the end of the game. This is meant to create a real sense of concern for this player in protecting even the small monarchies that are minimally valuable in terms of points, reflecting the very real concern of the Middle Eastern monarchies for all of the other monarchies.
  • Republics: The republican regimes player will win if two or fewer regimes are overthrown at the end of the game. There is no overriding loss condition for the republics, reflecting the lack of solidarity between the republics as a categorical grouping.
  • Opposition:  If any five countries are overthrown at the end of the game, the opposition wins. The opposition player who controls the most number of regimes wins, and the other opposition player comes second as long as the second opposition player is in control of at least one of the overthrown countries. This would represent a very significant and perhaps lasting political change across the region.

 Plans for the Future

A play-test! A board is in the works (many thanks to Tom Fisher for designing the board for me!), pieces have been ordered, cards are being developed, and a complete rule sheet is also not far off. Things are moving along well, and I could not be more excited to see how the game plays out.

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