Game Design #25: Superdelegate
Introduction: In honor of Barack Obama’s recent victory in the Democratic presidential primary race comes a game about currying support in the face of overwhelming odds and hazy information. You play a superdelegate watching an intense battle between two evenly-matched opponents. Throw your support behind the winning candidate to score points, but in the world of politics nothing remains static. Weigh their strengths and weaknesses, highs and lows, and support trends as you ride the wave of public opinion to emerge on the winning team.
- Pens or markers of different colors, one per player.
- Several sheets of paper for recording turns and scores.
- Small scraps of paper for use in voting and auctioning (A standard 3×5″ index card torn into four sections works well).
- A box, hat, or bag to use as a ballot box.
- At least one six-sided die.
Setting Up: Distribute the pens or markers to each player. Designate a person to act as ballot counter for the first round — this position rotates each turn. Select names for the two candidates and write them onto a sheet of paper atop two columns, entering a zero as the first entry under each candidate.
How to Play: Each turn, the two candidates compete for delegates in one of the fifty state primaries. The score sheet reflects each candidate’s standing as a number of delegates in support, increasing each turn as the primaries are completed. Following the order of primaries for the Democratic party, the players analyze the candidates’ standing and choose which to support, writing their choice on a scrap of paper and placing it in the ballot box. The ballot counter then determines the results of the primary as follows: take all the digits in the candidate’s current score and add them up — this is the number of die rolls the candidate gets that turn, from a minimum of one up to a maximum of ten. The ballot counter rolls for each candidate and adds the totals from all die rolls; the candidate with the higher total wins the primary. Delegates are awarded based on these totals (see below) and added to the candidate’s column on the score sheet. Players’ votes of support are then revealed and marked by drawing a star in that player’s color beside the candidate’s score for the turn.
Winning Support: The total from the die rolls for each candidate represents the new delegates in support they gain from the primary — immediately add it to their total support score. Additionally, whichever candidate wins the primary gets four bonus delegates in support — immediately add these as well.
For example: On turn three (Michigan primary), Candidate A has 15 delegates and Candidate B has 17. Thus, Candidate A gets six die rolls (1 + 5 from the number 15) and Candidate B gets eight (1 + 7 from the number 17). Players vote and the die is rolled, and Candidate A wins with a total of 15 over Candidate B’s total of 12. Each candidate gets their total for the turn added to their support number, brining them to 30 and 29, respectively. Candidate A gets a further four delegates for winning the primary. Players’ votes are now revealed and stars are marked on the score sheet next to this turn’s support value.
Winning the Game: Play continues until all fifty primaries have been completed or until one candidate acquires 628 delegates in support. At the end of the game, the candidate with the most delegates in support is the winner of the primary election. For every time a player supported that candidate during the primaries (represented by the number of stars of that player’s color that are visible amongst the sequence of totals on the score sheet), that player scores two points. For every time a player supported the losing candidate during the primaries, they score one point. Additionally, every player that supported the winning candidate on the last turn (the turn the candidate won) gains ten bonus points. The player with the highest score wins.
Next: Designing “Superdelegate:” I’ve been working on a lot of non-digital game ideas lately, or “sparks” as I call them. Each is a one- or two-sentence tidbit that can produce a simple, non-digital game design. For example: “Design a trading game in which players are unable to communicate verbally with each other.” These are the sorts of things you might see as the genesis ideas for game jams, but without the technological or time-based constraints. I came up with a number of the theme of auctioning, voting, and negotiation that I quite enjoyed, so I thought I’d try implementing a voting game. Then, I saw in my email that Barack Obama had clinched the Democratic nomination, so it seemed a natural fit to make a game about supporting a Presidential candidate.
I feel this game has more of an “art game” feel than many of my others. The mechanic of determining number of dice per turn by adding the digits in the candidate’s current support level makes the process of determining victory heavily random and highly unpredictable, especially in the later game when both will have enough support to roll with ten dice most of the time. I wanted to do it this way because I felt it would be impossible to simulate the real ups and downs of the primary trail under the constraints I operate with in these designs, but also in order to draw the capriciousness of the process and of superdelegate support into sharper relief. I wanted players to jump the fence frequently and with questionable provocation.
The result may well be that strategy is difficult or impossible and the winner gains victory simply by good luck… but in a way, that’s kind of appropriate. I like Obama and I am pleased he won, but the primary was so close I feel it could have swung the other way if a few key events had fallen out just slightly differently. It all seems so fragile, you know? I’ll be eager to see if this game can illustrate that, if only partially.