Inspiration and Gameplay
Early in 2011, the United States Congress got itself into a fight over the budget and threatened to shut down government. This happened back in 1995 as well and led to many federal employees being sent home for nearly a month. I watched events unfold this time with great interest as I was one of the people who would be sent home if Congress failed to reach an agreement. I started thinking about what was motivating each political party and wondering what secret agendas they had for long term gain. Naturally, I saw the makings of a game.
Rather than design a game that could get bogged down by focusing on what the specific issues were that Congress argued about, I wanted my new game to highlight how they maneuvered and negotiated. To me, that is the fun part. I wanted an engaging game in which players try to build coalitions, bluff about their real desires, threaten and extort for concessions, and frantically try to get what is best for them while minimizing the benefit to others. I also wanted the game to be fast-paced, so I added a time limit to each round so that the players would feel the pressure of having to get a deal done before time ran out.
Initially, I decided to give each player a random position on several issues and set them free to try to negotiate with the others to pass a proposal that reflected their individual interests. Players would need to compromise in order to get enough votes to support their position, but could also bluff about what their true position was, thus twisting others to their will without their knowing about it. I figured that the game would last several rounds and that each player would receive a new random position on the issues each round. This worked well, but something was missing. Then I had the idea of incorporating a secret agenda that stayed consistent throughout the entire game. This brought a new dimension into the game by enhancing the bluffing and deduction aspects of the game. For example, can you keep your secret agenda secret while trying to figure out the agenda of others? The only thing that didn't really fit the fast-paced nature of the game was the American process of congressional filibustering, in which one political party intentionally keeps discussing the same thing forever so that the proposal never comes to a vote. What I really wanted was for a single player to have the ability to threaten to veto the entire proposal, and thus came the shift from a U.S. Congress game to one about the UN Security Council: Article 27: The UN Security Council Game. You can see both my final prototype and the final Stronghold Games versions below.
This summary gives you a glimpse at how I came up with the idea. Now let's go over the actual design process.
Mechanisms and Materials
I decided to represent the issues with five colors thinking that each color would represent one type of issue: tax cuts, health care, defense, etc. I typically make my early prototypes using basic materials, so I took a bunch of index cards and colored a big dot on each of them and then gave each card a value from -5 to 5. That would let me deal out a random position to each player for the issues. Unfortunately, I quickly saw that the big dot I had made was easily visible through the cards, so I made a new set using colored numbers instead.
This helped, but I soon upgraded to using an old UNO deck since it had five colors (if you count black), with a range of values (if you add values to the black cards), and no one can tell what cards you are holding. Interestingly, this simple issue would come back to haunt me in an unexpected way.
The UNO cards worked fairly well during the testing, but I realized that the game was too random and one player could end up with two or even three of the -5 value cards. To balance this, I tried using all positive numbers, as in the UNO example above, but this didn’t feel right. Ultimately, I decided to move away from numbered cards and instead use the order in which the cards were dealt to determine their value to the players. An early version (top of the left image below) and my final laminated cards (bottom of left image) can be seen below, as well as Stronghold's final version of the issues.
Using the order that cards are dealt to define their value required a bit of honesty between players so that no one reordered their cards to improve their hand, but hey, if you can't trust people in a cutthroat bluffing and negotiation game, whom can you trust?
Stronghold actually came up with an elegant way to handle this possibility: People are allowed to cheat! We incorporated this as a variant for play in which you can claim any score you want at the end of a round, but anyone else has the right to challenge you. If you lied, you pay the challenger; if you were telling the truth, the challenger pays you. Simple and elegant, but even more cutthroat!
Now, since the order in which the cards were dealt had become important, I needed a card holder. I dug into my stacks of game parts and found some Rack-O holders. The cards stay ordered, and no one can see what your cards are. Problem solved. I added some tape with numbers indicating the values for each position and was good to go. Stronghold made dramatic improvements to this element, but I kind of miss the Rack-O holders...
I kept using the UNO cards until I made the more formal prototype version that had nice laminated cards. A funny thing about lamination is that it reflects colors really well, so imagine my dismay when during my push to show the game off at the Gathering of Friends (an invite-only annual game convention), everyone could see which cards everyone else had.
It could have killed the game right there, but luckily there was a mini-mart nearby (I didn't have a car on that trip) that just happened to have folders in the five colors I was using. They were even on sale! I must have looked rather strange when everyone else was buying Cokes and breakfast burritos and I was buying folders, glue sticks, paper clips, and markers. Presto, problem solved! And now I even had a place to paste the flags for each country! It's nice when a solution solves problems you didn't even know you had. These mini-mart folders lasted until Stronghold upgraded the game components for the published version.
For the Secret Agendas, I decided to use ¾" chips in the five colors with letters A-E on them. I needed something to help me organize and keep track of which secret agendas scored and which did not, and found that an old Jeopardy! board was the perfect size to hold the chips I was using. This system lasted until the final prototype version as well, except that we had to modify the scoring of the secret agendas to balance the endgame. Stronghold also added symbols to replace the letters, thereby adding more theme to the game.
The game board didn't exist at all until the final prototype. I used index cards with colored dots (remember the colored dots I mentioned earlier?), and this worked well enough to get through the playtesting. When I made the board, I simply grabbed clip art of the UN symbol and with my handy-dandy Xyron laminator the board came to life. (My wife laughs at me for liking to go to Joann Fabrics, but the chain has good prices on game-making bits like the Xyron 900.) This version lasted until the final Stronghold artwork as well.
At first, I used simple hand positions to indicate voting: thumbs up for yes, thumbs sideways for abstain, and thumbs down for veto. This lasted until Stronghold developed voting tokens to eliminate the possibility of a player reading how others were going to vote. Simple poker chips worked well throughout the entire design process to take care of the scoring, but the timer taught me a few things. I had used a simple kitchen timer (below right) and it worked fine until the battery ran down during one of my sessions demoing the game for a company – not a good thing. Luckily someone handed me the best timer ever: a cube-shaped timer that you restart by turning it to a new side, which is well worth what I paid for it. You can buy one of these as well, but Stronghold is including a reliable sand timer which actually adds to the tension: "Are there 30 seconds left or 15?!?!?"
Lastly, the gavel. Ahh, the gavel. Thank you Prize Property for having one I could scavenge, and thank you Stronghold for keeping it in the game!
When I first mentioned the theme to my playtesting friends, it raised some eyebrows until I explained that while politics sets the scene for the game, it is really about negotiation and reading people with a bit of a puzzle thrown in. Can you sway people to your point of view? How much can you extort from the others by threatening to veto? Can you work together to find a combination that will get enough votes to pass? Is that person really going to veto? Can you get someone else to support your secret agenda without him knowing it? Is it worth it to backstab others? Can you cause others to panic? That is the point of the game: How well can you negotiate with others to get your way? This turns out to be a great deal of fun.
The first place I demoed the game in public was at the Gathering, and immediately people told me how much they liked it. I must have demoed the game fifty times in five days. It was exhausting but in a really good way. One of the most interesting games was played entirely in French. I didn't understanding anything anyone was saying, but the dynamics turned out to be language-independent: heated debate, quick-spun deals, palpable tension, and looks of disbelief and utter dismay when someone chose to forgo their bribe and vetoed anyway. Eventually, Stronghold came by and asked if they could try it. They liked it and made me an offer that I couldn't refuse. The rest is history.
By the way, in case you're wondering, Article 27 is the section of the UN Charter that outlines the voting rights and responsibilities of the Security Council members and includes the unstated veto power of the permanent members. And while you can certainly spend time reading about Article 27 in the UN Charter, you might be more interested in scouring the rules for Article 27, which are available on BGG (PDF).