When I first considered creating a systems game like “Animal Kingdom,” I thought it would be a straightforward project. The initial thought was to simulate political dynamics in a modern society through a board game, representing the complexities of governance more accessibly through the simplicity of a game. The reason I envisioned the game and thought it was important to create it was the fact that, especially at a place like Stanford, there seems to be too little understanding of the fact that there can be differing viewpoints through circumstance. People can have different political needs and as such respond differently to different policies/comments, not because they’re bad people – but because they live in a different world. I think that while we all share one planet that fits on one map, we still live in different worlds, and that’s easily forgotten.
The team saw that vision and picked the idea. I expected it to be a blend of fun and strategy game, yet that it would be quite a heavy game to play due to some of the difficult topics. While the topic was heavy (that was feedback we received during the playtests – which is why we switched to a more light-hearted animal theme), what was actually heavy and difficult was the process of creating the game; it turned out to be a very involved process. We learned a lot during playtests, and a little bit in intra-team discussions. As such, “Animal Kingdom” evolved from a mere concept to a representation of socio-political intricacies. Integrating elements such as policy cards, global events, and districts reflecting diverse socio-economic levels, the game transformed into a Catan-esque board game of societal stratification and political maneuvering.
Once the overall structure was defined, the process of creating and refining the game elements – from writing most policy cards with a glass of wine one night (and – very important – finding title including an alliteration for most of them!) – was still quite the journey in itself. It was tough to weave a semblance of real politics into the game, especially as we couldn’t bake it all into the game dynamics, but had to keep some stuff simply as storyline at the top of the policy cards.
The most interesting part of the project was observing and integrating feedback from various playtests. Each session brought new insights, leading to iterative changes in the game. For instance, the shift from using basic political terms to more nuanced ones like changing ‘socialist’ to ‘nationalist’ to fit the theme, or refining gameplay to balance competition and collaboration, and potentially punish run-away leaders to make sure it stays fun for everyone. These adaptations made the game not only more engaging and strategic, but also a better reflection of real-world political dynamics – a politician who looks like the next president may still be hamstrung by e.g. a scandal.
Now, having gone through this process, my view of systems games has deepened in nuance. I see them as powerful tools for simulating and understanding complex systems, yet I have come to appreciate the difficulty in boiling a complex system down to something that’s learnable in 10 minutes and playable in 50. The project has equipped me with a deeper appreciation of the intricate relationship between game mechanics and real-life systems. In future games, I’ll aim to leverage this experience to create games that not only entertain but also educate players about real-world issues – I think focusing on environmental sustainability or global economic systems could be fun?
I believe “Animal Kingdom,” with its loops and arcs intricately woven into gameplay, successfully mirrors the complexities of our world. It’s a game that compels players to ponder the balance of power and the multifaceted nature of political opinions (and therefore party strategies that result from it), thereby fostering an understanding of the real-world social and political landscape.