Interregnum: Another Short Game about Tyrants

December 20, 2011

This is a preliminary draft, inspired by Heads of State, which Mark Vallianatos and I will collaboratively develop into a one-page or one-spread dedication to his anthology. It still needs some work, but the core seems solid.

Your homeland has recently joined the modern world, throwing off the shackles of colonialism and/or the clutches of a dying monarchy, becoming not a kingdom or protectorate but an independent nation-state. Or, at least, that was the plan. In practice, no single leader or coalition exerts complete authority, despite various claims to a mandate to rule. Instead, each player represents a warlord, strongman, party chief, dynastic heir, puppet ruler, soldier of fortune, or foreign military governor. The game ends when one player has consolidated their rule and suppressed other challengers, at least for the time being.

Take an index card and write the following on it, in consultation with the other players:

  • Your role in the glorious and successful national liberation movement, which may include your relationship with the other players. You may not have actually fought on the side of the revolutionaries, serving the dying monarchy or foreign occupiers instead, at least at first.
  • 2-3 ways you seek to improve your country’s lot, either domestically or internationally.
  • 2-3 values you seek to uphold as a political leader, proving that you are better than the jackals and vultures who have ruled this land for so long.

Find or create a map showing the former borders of the dead empire or colony that you have inherited. First, mark the boundaries of any neighboring states or colonies, ensuring that at least one — during the chaos of the glorious liberation — has claimed territories traditionally a part of your country. Then, each player should claim their own area of control, adhering to or ignoring boundaries previously drawn by the other players as they please. Any territory claimed by multiple players or neighboring states is considered “contested”; shade those portions to indicate that no one is fully in control of those areas.

Take turns. On your turn, describe a single “move” you make, using your authority as a political leader. This can by anything you like: conducting a military campaign, levying taxes, redistributing land, freeing the serfs, nationalizing industries, holding an election, etc. You are obviously involved in multiple efforts, but this is the highlight of your activities this year.

If no other player resists your effort, it happens. As the person with the power to make it happen however you want, you decide what the results are, but every other player proposes a possible consequence of your actions (violence, economic issues, personal crises, etc.) and you must pick at least half of them, rounded up, to actually occur. If these consequences violate your goals and principles or your heroic legacy as a liberator, adjust those written descriptions to match the person you have become. You must maintain consistency, at least in your own written understanding of yourself, though you’re welcome to lie to others and yourself out loud, obfuscating what really happened before the next player takes their turn.

If one or more players resists your proposal, through their own political might and resources, each player involved rolls a six-sided die and the winner carries the day. Each player must then accept a number consequences — proposed by the other players, as described about — equal to the number they rolled on their die. If there is a tie between sides, a stalemate occurs, as the competing parties clash to no clear resolution, creating consequences but making no real progress.

At any time, instead of changing the goals, principles, and heroic legacy on your sheet, you can rip up your card and retire from political life, typically through exile or death, but there might be other options, depending on the fictional circumstances. Optionally, you can give up your own card and join the team of another player, maintaining your own turn and making your own choices, but being limited to following their written goals and principles (not the image they describe aloud) and helping build their legacy. If you have joined someone else, you can only leave the game if a player — including yourself — spends their turn arranging your death or disappearance and is successful.

The game ends when the players agree on who will ultimately be the undisputed ruler(s) of whatever remains of the old empire, even if their rule is still currently challenged.

6 Responses to “Interregnum: Another Short Game about Tyrants”

  1. I like it! It’s at least a good framework, and may be complete in itself.

    One question:

    the other players propose various consequences (violence, economic issues, personal crises, etc.) and you must pick at least 2 of them. If they violate your goals and principles or your heroic legacy as a liberator, adjust those descriptions to match

    So does this mean if another player suggests “ethnic cleansing” as a consequence, I get to say, “No, no, the new director of infrastructure would never condone ethnic cleansing. Rather, we invite any supporters of the treacherous old regime to relocate to military camps for protective custody”?

    If that’s the case, is the understanding that this is just as bad as the originally proposed consequence (“ethnic cleansing” = “internment camps”)? Or is the understanding that I’m somehow softening the blow by reframing it?

    • You’re totally right, that needs some clarification. Basically I was thinking that you’d change your principles + goals to make whatever happens justified, at least in your own mind, but then you can obfuscate or explain away what’s happening to the players at the table. So, yeah, you don’t get to choose to be nicer, but you can give it your own spin or veneer.

  2. Wow! Me and three friends played this for about two hours today, and it was a blast. It gets interesting pretty quickly, especially when we started to expand into other territories and then cut huge deals. We also whipped up a chart of 12 random events that we would roll for once every few rounds.

    There are a few things that were a bit unclear at the time, so I have a few questions:

    1. If someone opposes a move by another player and wins the d6 roll, does the person who opposed get a move?

    2. When picking consequences for an action, do you have to adjust your move based on if your consequences don’t align with your philosophy or do you have to adjust the consequences?

    3. Because of the fact that people rarely chose the worst consequences, we had a hard time making shifts of power early in the game. It wasn’t until we started inciting revolutions, forming alliances, and blockading ports that we got the game really moving. It seems there is, at least initially, a huge advantage given to military-minded leaders. I know that with such an open-style system a lot of this comes down to the players, but it felt almost like a chore to come up with ways to win through strong industry and agriculture without either militarizing heavily or requesting foreign military assistance.

    Anyway, this is excellent. We’re definitely going to get some more people involved and turn it into a long-term massive facebook game.

  3. Wow, Loshon! I’m stunned you guys played this already. Thanks so much!

    To answer your questions:

    1. Not as such. Like, they get to narrative some about their opposition, obviously — what they’re doing to put a stop to things — but in my mind it’s not quite the same as having an extra turn, which might make things screwy by rewarding players who opposed everything (which, on second thought, might not necessarily be bad either… hmm…).

    2. Yeah, that probably needs some explanation. My sense is that the consequences are all things that could result from your action and you just pick the ones that you detest the least. Being a leader involves making hard choices, and things are going to happen that don’t align with your ideals. Ultimately, you have to accept that and adjust your ideals to match reality. Does that make sense?

    3. You just stumbled on one of the two emergent properties I was hoping would come through in the game. That’s fantastic! I ran something like this before when I was TA-ing a college course, and discovered the exact same thing: when you draw the map and only record (a) victories over the other players and (b) territorial changes on the map, the players inevitably end up focusing mostly on dominating each other, rather than anything else they might accomplish. And this accurately reflects, I think, what it’s like to be a warlord in a divided nation. Chiang Kaishek called the Japanese invasion a “disease of the skin” while the Communist insurgency was “a disease of the heart.” In fact, when I pitched the game to Mark as a potential dedication to Heads of State I said:

    My thinking on the game is that, over time, dealing with anything
    except the territorial disputes on the map (i.e. attempting to conquer
    or subvert each other) will fall to the wayside, which is kinda how it
    worked in real life, at least in modern China, with the various
    competing warlords becoming more and more paranoid and obsessed with
    each other and “unifying the nation.” But it definitely has a lot of
    emergent properties, being so open-ended and dependent on how players
    feel about their goals, principles, and heroic legacy.

    The other emergent property I’m hoping to see involves the players uniting together. I’m hoping that some players rip up their card and join another player, but that over time they become to regret that decision, since they lack their own principles and their patron’s principles also degrade over time and encourage them to do increasingly terrible things. And such players are semi-trapped, right? Because they’ve already ripped up their card and can’t do it again to retire from politics in protest. In my mind this represents being stuck serving under someone terrible and not being able to get out.

    Any chance you can send me the list of random events that you came up with? I’m really interested to see how you hacked the game.

    • Sure! Here they are to the best of my memories: (It should be noted that we played in an alternative post-WW2 Italy)

      1. France blockades key industrial Italian ports.

      2. Britain develops nuclear power.

      3. Nazi-sympathizers lynch a few people.

      4. France moves to occupy Italy due to the instability.

      5. A foreign diplomat is assassinated while visiting Italy.

      6. Mysterious plague erupts and spreads north to south over the next three turns.

      7. Four multi-national corporations halt operations in Italy. (Each player chooses an industry)

      8. Four multi-national corporations double operations in Italy. (Each player chooses an industry)

      9. New research proves tobacco smoking is tied to cancer; the tobacco market faceplants.

      10. MRI is invented early by Swiss scientists.

      11-12 I don’t remember.

      It was interesting exploring how seemingly small things that we had little control over changed the world.

      • Those are great! I really like the idea of random events to spurn action somehow. Now I just have to figure out a way to work those in and still keep the game rules to a single page!

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