Today in the United States is voting day. If you’re a US citizen, I encourage you to get out in vote — even though the presidential election is a broken game, as I wrote four years ago. But, before you do, I want to more generally discuss voting as a game mechanic, because it’s a pretty good one, and one that I think should be used in more game.
First I’m going to touch upon the design of three notable voting games, and then I’m going to expand upon that by breaking down the elements of voting design and examining how they could be incorporated into gameplay.
If I didn’t include a game in here, it’s probably because it has the facade of being a voting game, but without an actual voting mechanic. Liberté (2001) is a fine example; it’s theoretically a voting game, but it’s based on a majority control mechanic — because to a certain extent auctions, voting, and majority-control all devolve into the same gameplay. Similarly Die Macher (1986) is obviously a game about elections, but it’s based on complex economic play. Finally, 1960: The Making of a President (2007) is about card play and (once more) majority control. So just remember that the focus here is voting, not politics or the facade of voting.
The First Game: Quo Vadis?
Quo Vadis (1992), a classic design by Reiner Knizia, is a fairly abstract game that’s almost pure voting. The game board looks like a bizarre Roman flow chart: you place your meeples into multiple committees along the bottom of the board, then you try to raise them up into higher-level committees and eventually the Senate. You do this (mostly) by voting.
The trick in Quo Vadis is that votes are made by the meeples sitting in the committee rooms. If you’ve filled a majority of spaces in a committee with your own meeples, no probably: you vote yourself up. However you can only really succeed in the game if you instead leverage smaller collections of meeples by negotiating with your fellows that also have meeples in that committee. Victory points and the promise of future favors usually smooth the way — though the future promises can be broken!
The Second Game: Democrazy
Bruno Faidutti’s Democrazy (2000) is one of the few other games to use pure voting mechanics, but in contrast to Quo Vadis it’s a lot less abstract. Each turn a player plays a card to propose a new law — some of which have instant effects and some of which have ongoing effects. The players then vote “Yes” or “No” with another card; the voting is hidden, then revealed all at once when everyone’s played a card.
The game’s core decision making is based on the same idea as many auctions: player variation. Each player has a different set of colored chips. The laws tend to change their valuations in different ways. Clearly, you’ll vote for the laws that benefit your chip collection the best.
Democracy also varies its voting just slightly. Each player also holds a special one-use vote card, which can make the vote automatically succeed, automatically fail, or flip (“Rigged!”).
The Third Game: Junta
The classic American game, Junta (1985), offers an example of a complex game that includes voting as a single element. Votes occur when the president is elected and when money is divided up. These votes include several interesting elements.
First, votes come from a variety of sources. Each player has a position that’s given to him that provide votes and he may have influence cards that give even more votes. These both stick around. However, each player may also have vote cards that are expended after they’re used.
Second, votes tend to occur in two rounds: after each player has made his initial votes, he may add to them in a second round.
The general idea of players have variable number of votes is interesting, as is the fact that some of those votes are actually assigned to players as part of the gameplay! However, the fact that some of the votes are discarded actually turns them into a currency, which trends Junta more toward auction-style play — showing how fragile true voting mechanics are!
There are also some interesting voting elements that only come up at the end of the vote. To start with, one of the player roles has the option to automatically make the budgetary vote succeed — sort of like those special “Automatic Yes” cards in Democracy, but with guns. In addition, there are bad results if the budget vote doesn’t pass: el presidente just keeps everything.
The Mechanics of a Voting Game
So if you’re going to design a voting game, what are the mechanics you should think about? Based on our examples, here are a few ideas:
Who Gets to Vote? The most obvious answer is to let each player vote once, but Junta shows that you can vary that by allowing each player multiple votes and Quo Vadis shows that you could instead let tokens in a game vote (though that trends toward majority control if you’re not careful).
Looking at various real-life voting systems, you could allow voting based on in-game wealth, you could allow it based on in-game land, you could limit it based on certain conditions (like being an in-game felon or being a woman), or you could tie it to a test.
However, my favorite idea is to model a game based on a representative democracy rather than a direct democracy: you vote to elect representatives, and then you hope they do what you want — which would probably be based on the draw of cards appropriate to the elected official or some other mechanic that simultaneously introduces chaos while constraining it.
What Exactly is Voted on? Most obviously, you can vote on victory conditions — but you have to break it down into bite-sized bits. So, Quo Vadis lets you vote on individual ascensions (and the acquisition of victory tokens along the way) while Junta lets you bid on the division of money.
Generally, the further you can get away from the victory points themselves, the better, because distance muddles the exact value of things — which is another lesson learned from auction play. That’s one of the things that makes Democrazy strong: you’re voting on changes to the valuation of markers that players hold. Generally, using votes to allocate, valuate, or transform resources that are a few steps away from victory points can offer interesting play.
Here, my favorite idea is to create a “city planning” voting game, where players vote to construct buildings, which might help the resource-management of different players in different ways.
Who Gets to Decide What’s Voted On? Clearly, you can’t let players have total choice on what’s getting voting on. However if you can constrain their choices through mechanical elements of the game (like choosing amounts of money, division of resources, or changes in valuations) or through pre-constrained options (like those printed on cards), then you can still offer a lot of choice.
Quo Vadis constrains your choices the most: you’re limited to choosing where a vote happens. Junta is the next most constrained: it allows free choice to design a vote within a very limited sphere (who is elected president, how money is allocated. Democrazy in contrast supports a very wide variety of very different votes, but it’s constrained to the cards in your hand. You can have interesting voting choices anywhere on this spectrum, but there just have to be some limits.
How is the Vote Conducted? Secret or open? One round or multiple rounds? Ongoing or limited?
What’s Required to Win a Vote? All the games discussed here assume that majority rules. If votes weren’t binary yes/no results, then a plurality would work just as well. But what if a vote required a super-majority (say, two-thirds) or a sub-majority (say, one-third) or unanimity?
When considering results, it’s also worthwhile to think about alternative-voting systems. Could you introduce ranked choice into a game, where the result that does worst gets to apply its vote to one of the remaining choices? (If you just ordered cards for the various choices, that might be a mechanic that worked without being cumbersome.)
Are There Any Special Types of Votes? Democrazy showed some great examples of special votes: automatic yes or no votes or votes that flip the results. Junta has votes that are worth variable amounts and that have varying rules for reusage. Either of these ideas creates depth that you don’t get with standard votes.
What about votes that changed the criteria needed to win (“No, and a super-majority is required”)? What about votes that offered variations to required payment, which the player leading the vote could choose to accept or not — sort of like Tower of Babel (2005) where you can bid resources that the player must exchange for a special incentive if he wants to take them? What about votes that change what’s actually being voted on — perhaps allowing everyone to reassess their own vote?
Are There Other Ways to Influence the Vote? Are there non-voting mechanics that can change the vote? Can it be changed by special roles, by special resources, or by special powers? Junta’s ability to force a budget through offers one such example: an extra ability that everyone knows about, but that’s totally separate from the voting system. Quo Vadis instead has a mechanic that totally short-circuits the voting system: if Caesar is sitting above a chamber, you can move up a meeple.
What are the Other Repercussions of Voting? Once you’re done running a vote, do other things occur? Junta offers the best example, where a failed vote can give all the money to el presidente. Generally, a failed vote (or multiple failed votes) is a great way to trigger something in a voting system. Alternatively, successful votes could trigger things too.
You might reward the victors or give them status; or you might give consolation or special power to the losers. You might even do something very mundane after any sort of voting is done, like let players draw new cards or new votes or have an event occur.
Voting games can be very dense, but they’re woefully underused in the eurogame world right now. It’s pretty hard to find a pure voting game, with Quo Vadis?, Democrazy, and the various Werewolf games including The Resistance (2009) being rare exceptions. And, it’s a pity because as I detail here there’s a lot of opportunity for variety and variability and creating games that folks haven’t seen before. (And what I discuss here is just the starting point.)
Now excuse me, I’ve got a game to design about the representative democrazy of city planning.
And you should go vote.