Plenty of video games have embraced politics in the past, and plenty of those games have been incredibly boring. Elections of US America Election: The Card Game looks to change that, presenting a fun way to piss off friends and family alike by smearing their campaigns for the US presidency, while also teaching players a little about the machine that is stateside politics.
The game is the work of Bristol-based studio Auroch Digital, whose gamethenews initiative has set real-world issues into the video game space to great acclaim. These games include Cow Crusher, focusing on the horse meat scandal that hit the UK and Europe, and Endgame: Syria, putting the player in charge of Syrian rebels who can choose to either pursue peace or intensify the conflict to reach a conclusion.
Elections of US America Election, which is mouthful however many times you say it (which might just be the point, given the nonsensical nature of so many campaign-trail sound bites), is a collaborative venture with the US political satire blog Wonkette.com, and Auroch's first physical game following so many digital projects. Players can choose to oversee the actions of Donald Trump, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, genuine human beings contesting the 2016 US presidential election. But there are also some fantastical runners in the pack, including HP Lovecraft's notorious cosmic creature Cthulhu, the really-rather-dead Abraham Lincoln, and (I think) more to be revealed. Who'd be better in the White House, really: a Great Old One from across the universe who wants to wipe out the human race as we know it, or Cthulhu? Yeah, you saw that coming.
I spoke to Auroch Digital's design and production director, Tomas Rawlings, to learn more about this new gaming take on the madness of American politics.
VICE: Auroch has history in taking real-world issues into the interactive entertainment space. Politics can be pretty dry in games, though, so is it the Trump factor that set the wheels of this project in motion?
Tomas Rawlings: We did a game, when we first started doing news games about four years ago, when Romney and Obama were fighting it out. We did a little game back then, one of the first we ever did. That was a bit of fun, and I was pleased with it, but I always felt that there was a lot more to it than we fit into that game, which we made in under a week. There's a lot more to politics, and it's bugged me since then.
Often when you're playing a game, you're figuring out ways to exploits its systems – if I do this, the AI is going to do this other thing. Politics is full of those exploit mechanisms, where candidates, consciously or otherwise, are deliberately trying to play down their opponents or bump themselves up, and often at an arm's length. And I really wanted to do something that got that across to the audience, to the player. Like, this is how crazy this world is.
I read an article a while ago that described modern democracy as a 19th century version of it, but living in a 21st century world of technology. And I think that's where we're at – the technology that these big campaigns are using, under the hood, if you like, is way more advanced than we think it is. We still think that we're the voters, we assess the issues and we make a choice. But there's a lot more complicated stuff going on behind the scenes, and I want to explore that, and a game is the best way to do that.
VICE: Why now for a physical card game, given the company's experience in making digital games?
The design of this game absolutely makes sense for it to be something you play with your mates when sitting around a table. The backstabbing elements of it are all the more fun when you're right there with your best friends, or your partner – it's funnier to drop a sex scandal on them, in person. But that aside, I learned my trade as a games designer on pen-and-paper stuff, games like Dungeons & Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. I was asked to do some lecturing on a game technology course, where the students were learning how to make digital video games, and I asked: "Can I get them to learn about making board games?" That might seem completely apathetical to a group of people learning 3D art and coding, but that's a great way to get a pure player experience, to strip away the technology and focus on what the player actually gets to do, and how they interact with other players. I'm a huge fan of physical games, and they've contributed a great deal to the digital world. It's hard to imagine a games industry without Dungeons & Dragons, as its concepts and ideas are in the very DNA of what we do in video games. But I don't really see one as better than the other – I spend way too much of my time playing both. So this was a great opportunity to do a physical game, and we've gone for it.
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So, run me through how the game plays, as basically as you can. Each player is a campaign manager, right? So I'm imagining that each candidate has Top Trumps-style points, but these can be modified by other cards, perhaps?
So you pick your candidate, and it's your job to get them to office, using fair means or foul. Your candidate will have strengths or weaknesses, which you need to play to. The basic way the game works is that you turn over a State card, let's say Iowa, and that will allow you to draw a certain number of voter cards. So you place those cards in the middle of the table, and take turns to grab the number of voter cards that your appeal allows you to take on each turn. That's the game: you grab the number of votes that correspond to your appeal, and the more votes you have, the better. You win the state, you win more state, and whoever wins the most states, wins. That's the idea of democracy we understand, and that's the core of the game.
However, then the fun bits come in. Politicians and their managers don't just go out there campaigning for votes. They do all these other things. And this is where the two forms of "Wonk" cards come in. One is deploying team members to bolster your campaign, and the other is tricks. So, attack ads are a great example of that. You might set up robo-callers to ring people up with a disparaging message about another candidate. There are all these ways to undermine the other candidates, while you're remaining virtuous and nice, or at least pretending to.
Scandals are another element of the game. They go with politics like bread and butter, so there will be the option to drop scandals on the other players. But, just because someone does that to you, doesn't mean you can't fight it. There are other cards that will allow you to defeat that scandal, before it really happens – it might be that you offer the media a better scandal in return for them dropping the one about you, so you avoid the damaging story. And what's great about this is that it's all real-world stuff, and there's so much of it to draw on. For example, just as we were finishing the Kickstarter game, that militia occupation thing happened in Oregon, and that's the sort of event that presidential candidates would be expected to respond to, so let's stick a card in on that. And depending on where your candidate stands on certain issues, that event might be good or bad for them. All the crazy stuff in this game happens in politics, anyway.
Some of the things you read about these real-life candidates, what they've said, you just can't make it up. Trump's the obvious example, with the wall on the Mexican border and his idea to ban Muslims from entering the country. Does that kind of nonsense make your job all the easier, as you don't have to be amazingly imaginative with the craziness? It's playing out on the world stage already.
American politics is simultaneously some of the most fascinating politics in the world and also some of the scariest. And you're right – Obama is called left wing in the States by the Republicans, but he strikes me as being roughly in the position of our Conservative Party. So if he's America's idea of a left-wing candidate, it makes their right-wing candidates frighteningly right. For us, looking at some of what's said over there, it's like shooting fish in a barrel; and that's why we don't have every card finished for the game just yet. I know the sort of things I want in there, but there's so much going on over there, now, that we want to have space for new ideas. There's too much good stuff to ignore. We were joking about adding a card about your candidate going out and shooting people in the street. If your candidate is Trump, your popularity goes up, but for everyone else it goes down.
It'd all be hilarious if it wasn't also so terrifying. So there's a dual purpose to Kickstarter, then – one, to cover the production costs for the game, and secondly, so that backers can feed back ideas to you on what they might want to see in the game, giving you the flexibility to be as up to the minute as possible with each candidate's actions prior to the game's launch?
If people are backing what we're doing, we have to listen to their opinions. And if that's how you want to engage with this project, that's great. And the brilliant thing about having Wonkette involved is that they really know stuff about US politics that us in the UK just don't get to see. Sometimes it's amazing, but that's how they do it. It's been key to have a range of opinions going into this, otherwise we could end up with this distant view of what we think is happening, without any real on-the-ground feeling of it. Also, Wonkette are a lot funnier than I am. I'm confident as a games designer, but I'm terrible as a comedian.
Related, on VICE News: What Do You Think About the US President?
As this is a Kickstarter campaign, you've got different levels of rewards. You pay more, so you get "more" of the game. So if you buy into it at a lower tier, can you later upgrade your game, to enjoy the extra elements that higher backers receive?
Yes, absolutely, people will have the ability to upgrade their tier. I know what it's like when you get a new game, and there's this massive pile of instructions, and it's really off putting. Some people are happy with that, but we didn't want a game that overwhelmed people. So the lower-tier game is the basic version, which is easier to play, and those who pay more get a version with more advanced modes. Another feature we're trying out, and this is for every level of backer, is that you'll get a video on how to play the game. I think, from playing a bunch of board games recently, that'll take out some of the hard work that goes into playing one for the first time. Sometimes game designers aren't the best people at actually explaining how to play their game, so we'll have this simple video, lasting a couple of minutes, and you can just launch in and start enjoying it.
Clearly this is meant to be a fun game – you wouldn't have Lovecraftian beings in the mix if it wasn't. But you obviously want players to learn a little about the political machine too, right?
I'd like for someone who plays this to come away with a greater understanding about politics than they had when they started. For me, that'd be a double win: they've had fun, and they understand some important things about the world. Because even though this is all happening over there, and we don't get a vote, it does impact us. Whoever gets this job for real has some massive global issues to address, like the state of wars going on and climate change. At the moment, it seems to me that most candidates are just seeing who can shout the loudest, and that really doesn't make me feel confident in their leadership.
But then, who would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn would have won the Labour leadership? That flummoxed everyone here in the UK, and now there's a media narrative struggling to frame Corbyn within it. He was the outsider, and he won, and that shows us that there are people who do not feel represented by the comfortable political class, and exactly the same thing is happening in the States, be it Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. Both of them are tapping into dissatisfaction, and as much as it's easy for people in the political mainstream to poke fun at the edges of it, the real message is that you do need to listen to these people. And there's a message to the people too, which is that they need to understand these political systems. And that's partly what this game is about.
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