Members of the Board

Written by Alex Stevenson on 14 December 2014 in Culture
When all the meeting room game-playing is done, which games do those of a political bent like to play?

Personal rivalries, petty point-scoring, merciless betrayals: was there ever a marriage made in heaven quite like that between boardgames and politics?

Let it never again be said that the only option for wiling away the festive season is a boring game of Monopoly or Scrabble. There is a whole world – actually, countless worlds – of boardgames out there that are perfectly suited to those with a political bent.

But many in Westminster don’t seem to realise it. Maybe it’s a context thing, but when, at the end of an important meeting, they’re asked about which boardgames they like, they tend to blink in surprise, and are mostly stumped.

Ed Miliband’s PPS, Wayne David, wins the prize for the most philosophical answer. “Snakes and Ladders has all the elements of politics,” he muses. “Ultimately it depends on a large measure of luck. You can have quick promotion via the ladders, you can have quick and demeaning demotion by the snakes. There are plenty of nice people in politics, but quite a few snakes, as well.”

Profound, but politicians should to be able to do better than that. As my out-of-the-blue questioning has revealed, there’s not much awareness about the wealth of options available. “They’re just really good fun,” says John Morgan, the owner and manager of Thirsty Meeples in Oxford, the UK’s first boardgame café. Its walls are lined with shelves stacked with games of every kind. “We try and popularise boardgames and dispel the geek side of them.”

Many of the games on the shelves at Thirsty Meeples are unusual – and face the stigma of being branded geeky as a result. In Chicken Caesar, for example, Roman roosters play politics. In Battlestar Galactica, a very political game, the player who is designated president enjoys special powers but can be voted out if others suspect him or her of being an evil robot. And then there’s always the topical Game of Thrones, in which an already-complex geopolitical balance is enlivened by the need to consider the political implications of weaponised dragons and the existential threat posed by hordes of the undead.

For some political types, this all might be a bit much, but ambassadors from the sub-cultural boardgaming world are reaching out to the political world. One of the contestants on the forthcoming Sky 1 series King of the Nerds, who must remain nameless as the ‘Nerds’ are under wraps until the programme airs next year, has this message for Westminster denizens: “If you’re willing to step outside the comfort zone of the familiar political arena, you can have a great deal of fun. Ultimately, boardgames are about social interaction and having a shared experience doing something that everyone enjoys (even when they’re being screwed over), which is something nerds and non-nerds alike can enjoy.”

For now, though, the embarrassment persists, so much so that one ministerial special adviser interviewed for this feature declined to be named on the basis that his geekiness would embarrass his senior Conservative employer.

The game this SpAd is so keen on is Diplomacy, a superbly-balanced classic in which chance has no role. Instead, it’s the negotiation skills of seven evenly-matched players, each representing one of Europe’s great powers circa 1901, that will determine victory or defeat.

“The people who tend to do well at Diplomacy are those who spend many hours talking at great length to put across their position and the tactical disadvantages and advantages of certain actions,” the SpAd explains. “Working in a department where negotiations with Liberal Democrats happen on a regular basis, you can see similarities. You always need to be wary and looking ahead, waiting for the moment when your opponent is going to stab you in the back.”

In Diplomacy alliances are critical, but also temporary. Part of the skill is in anticipating a betrayal – and judging when to betray your allies. “Just as in coalition politics, it’s only ever a marriage of convenience because ultimately everyone wants to win,” continues the SpAd. “You’re all trying to see how you can achieve success within the alliance, while putting yourself in the best position to take advantage of your allies when they least expect it.”

All of which might seem a little too close to home to be a source for fun, but there are games, believe it or not, that seek to cash in on the glamour of governing the country. The most obvious candidate is Westminster, an early-1980s election-themed effort in which the chief goal is to get a bill through Parliament. City Council offers the tantalising threat of a government takeover, ruining everything. Tammany Hall, in which players help immigrants settle in New York and use their support to gain control of the city, might be especially enjoyable if played with any UKIP chums. City Hall, a modern-day version that focuses on the race to be New York’s mayor, revels in the tension between doing down your opponents and trying to bolster your own approval ratings. “Whichever player has the most votes on election day”, the blurb says, “will become mayor of New York and appoint his or her opponents to the Sanitation Department”.

“Running through many of these games is a certain amount of blackmail and bribery,” Morgan says. That is taken to extremis in Junta, a Latin American pastiche in which each player’s primary goal is to squirrel away as much money as possible into their Swiss bank account. “You need to play most games at least once to know what you’re doing. It’s the same in politics – along the way, other players try and trip you up. You have to be mindful that others are going to try and thwart your mission and wrest control from you.”

What all these games do is recreate a specific set of circumstances, boiling complex situations down into the structure of a game. That can apply to historical games as well as contemporary ones. The political arts were just as relevant in Roman or medieval times as they are today, so why not vie for control of the Senate by playing The Republic of Rome, or tussle for the king’s favour in War of The Roses: Lancastrians and Yorkists?

If that’s too far removed from reality, there are plenty of games based on contemporary events. Labyrinth is a genuine attempt to turn the fight against global terrorism into thought-provoking entertainment. Tomorrow creates an ominous near-future scenario in which players grapple with overpopulation. Pandemic, a co-operative play game in which a terrible virus wipes out whole populations, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the Ebola crisis.

In future some of these games will be viewed as just a little bit revolting. As society changes, so does its games. There’s the awful Blacks and Whites (1970), a real estate game in which the object is to either prevent or succeed in making a neighbourhood more mixed-race. Or Public Assistance (1980, tagline: “Why bother working for a living?”), a welfare game that actually ended up being banned because it encouraged scrounging. Or, worst of all, the sinister Nazi game Juden Raus (1936), in which players vie to deport six Jews. A copy is available to view in the Wiener Library in London.

Not all games are about entertainment, it’s clear. Some are powerful educational tools. Military types would certainly agree; there’s a reason they encourage war-gaming in government. Air Commodore Andrew Lambert is a passionate advocate of there being more developmental exercises and games carried out in No. 10. “The minister or their deputy goes into their bunker and is then bombarded with information and told, ‘Right then, prime minister, what are you going to do?’,” he explains.

“He [or she] then has to ring up a mate, presumably the US president, and ask ‘What’s your view?’ Between the two of them they then have to decide whether or not they’re going to use more power, less power, try a media offensive, use more sanctions, withdraw, attack etc.”

If even the PM could benefit from strategic role-playing, is there anyone who can’t? Not according to civil servants, who have made up their own boardgame based on the law-making process: Legislate?! is an inter-active boardgame that takes players through the legislative process, from policy development to implementation.

Hayley Rogers of the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel created the game as a substitute for delivering a lecture on the vagaries of legislative process. In Legislate?! these twists and turns are represented in the Chance card deck. ‘Accidentally repeal old criminal offences before new ones in force – major political embarrassment – go back two spaces’, one states. “You have to be prepared for the unexpected,” as Rogers puts it. None of the setbacks she’s come up with are quite as galling as this one, though: ‘No. 10 not prepared to support your idea. Go back to square one.’

Whether for entertainment or for education, boardgames are very good at recreating reality, but they have one further use; they can actually be a force for good. Earlier this year Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi set up the all-party group on Chess with the goal of getting the game on to the national curriculum. Studies show that disruptive children can benefit from being sat down and asked to play a game. “They acquire the skill to sit without moving – they become calmer,” Qureshi explains. It teaches two lifelong skills useful for every would-be politician: “Planning your strategy a few moves ahead – and patience.”

And on December 8th, these skills will be tested to the limit when MPs and peers from Qureshi’s all-party group will pit themselves against Garry Kasparov, the Russian opposition figurehead and Chess Grandmaster. It’s the boardgame equivalent of facing the bowling of Mitchell Johnson, trying to return Novak Djokovic’s serve or attempting to save a penalty taken by Mario Balotelli. “I’m sure there have been some great politicians who have been great Chess players,” Qureshi says. This will probably end up feeling more like a learning experience, too.

Perhaps MPs would be better off sticking to the kind of games in which they have a natural advantage, and the choices on offer go well beyond Snakes and Ladders. Policy games, election games, history games, fantasy games, deduction games, negotiation games, horse-trading games, strategy games – whatever you fancy, the boardgame world has it. This festive season, let the games begin. ■

Tags: Boardgames

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