Ever wonder how Corporate America came to be? If the Kickstarter is successful, it will become a real board game, just like Monopoly or Illuminati! Right now, it’s a handful of prototypes scattered across the world and some files on my computer. But the game began as only a vague idea in my mind, and took months to even reach any physical form. Today, I’m going to tell you that story.
Mile High Idea
It all began somewhere over the Atlantic in June of 2011. I was on my way to a game conference in France. On the long flight across the ocean, I passed the time by reading Tracy Fullerton’s excellent Game Design Workshop because, you know, I’m a nerd like that.
I eventually reached the chapter on economic systems in games. There’s a huge range of economies in games, from very simple bartering systems to the complex meta-economies of collectible card games. Ultimately, all of these economic systems are abstractions and simplifications of actual economic systems, designed to emphasize some aspects (usually the fun ones) but avoid lots of the messy parts.
Thinking about this, an idea came to mind: a game that simulated economic bubbles. It had already been some time since the housing bubble collapsed, but the residual effects were still being felt around the world (just like they still are today). It was an interesting phenomenon, and one that people would probably benefit from learning more about. And the basic mechanic sounded like it could be fun: players would spend the game creating a bubble, driving prices up artificially, and the game would end when that bubble collapsed. Whoever got out last before the crash would most likely win.
I tried to continue reading, but I had the bug. My mind was racing with possibilities. Even though the basic idea was simple, there were so many directions to go with it. I stopped reading, pulled out my notepad, and started brainstorming every relevant concept I could think of: resources you might collect, insidious actions you might take to benefit yourself, government and non-government systems that would get in your way. The list went on and on. My simple little idea was quickly becoming a complex messy idea… but I was very excited! I even thought about having tracks for the population’s well being and environmental damage so you could see the havoc you wreaked by the end of the game.
I had a lot of fun brainstorming, but didn’t really pursue the game seriously afterward. It seemed like it had a lot of potential, but I was working on another game pretty seriously at the time and didn’t want to derail myself. Also, another little problem kept rearing its head: how can I simulate economic bubbles when I really don’t understand them myself?
Turns out the answer to that question is I can’t. I probably could have studied some economics theory to get enough of an idea that I could have built a simple system to make it happen, but it didn’t seem worth it with everything else going on. So, the idea kind of died there. The good news is that all of that OTHER stuff I had been brainstorming still seemed like it could be pretty interesting, so I kept playing with the idea of players taking on the role of heartless corporations out to help themselves and casually screwing over everyone else on the way.
Before our story continues, I’ll also mention that I later discovered there already is a game about economic bubbles called Black Friday. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing it yet, but I hope to someday soon.
Inspiration from Disappointment
After a few months of working on the other game, some problems with it started to emerge. Don’t get me wrong… it is a lot of fun, and still has some die hard fans. But a number of problems were raising questions about how much potential the game had.
First off, it is two players only. This really limits how often it is appropriate to play the game. Scheduling two reliable playtesters isn’t easy. And to top it all off, I can’t even really play, since I know the game too well and can easily beat any opponent! (Ok, there are definitely people better than me, but new players don’t have a chance.) You don’t want to rely on playtesting yourself when making a game, but being able to play with people now and then makes the whole process a lot more fun.
The game is also extremely analytical. There is very little social interaction; everything you can do is written on the cards, so you and your opponent just play cards at each other. Games are as quiet as Chess. Some people like this kind of game (including me) but many do not. If I’m making a non-digital game, I want to include people in the experience!
Finally, the game is cut throat in a pretty nasty way. The whole game revolves around messing your opponent up. It is possible to just try to build your own side up and not deal with your opponent, but many of the cards require you to actively attack the other person. Again, some people really enjoy this kind of game, but many people absolutely hate them. Excluding those people from my game was very disappointing for me.
I’d spent many months working on this game, and I decided I needed a break. I’d already submitted the game to a publisher, so it didn’t even make sense for me to dedicate more work to it for the time being.
In the mean time, I’d been sneaking in brainstorming sessions for the corporation game all the time. It seemed to me like it had potential to overcome a lot of the problems that my other game had. So I decided it was time to build my first prototype and put it to the test.
Actually, before I dove into making my first prototype, I wanted one last reality check. I thought a game about corporate influence over politics sounded pretty awesome, but I’m also a bit of a political junkie. It’s not exactly a common theme for a game–maybe there was a good reason for that. So I asked a good friend, who told me he thought the concept was interesting and that a lot of people would probably want to play. That’s all I needed to hear to dedicate all my free time to the new game.
An Accidental Protest
It was the beginning of November 2011 when I started work. I was able to reuse some software I wrote to generate cards for the other game, so it didn’t take long before I had a complete set of cards. They weren’t pretty, mind you. In fact, they were so ugly they barely worked. But I had the game, and some gamey friends generously agreed to be the first guinea pigs.
A little side story: on the way over to my friends’ house I passed Occupy Santa Cruz. After that, I actually had quite a bit of trouble finding their house, due to a little address confusion. I was also unable to reach them by phone. As I biked around their neighborhood losing hope that I would get a chance to try out my new game, I considered just waltzing into the Occupy Santa Cruz camp to see if any protesters would be interested in trying a game that might appeal to their political sensibilities. Thankfully, one of my friends called me to help clear up my confusion. The game would have been much too rough for the Occupiers, I’m afraid.
But for my friends, who have lots of experience with messy games and game design, the concept was fun enough that we could see the potential. The game was ridiculously rough. The numbers were all WAY off. Much of the legislation barely made sense. Everyone had basically the same industries (there were no synergy bonuses to incentivize specialization). There was little reason to be president (Executive Privilege cards did not exist, and legislation cards were weaker and you had fewer to choose from and play). There weren’t even any symbols, so telling which businesses people had was nearly impossible! I think at the end of the game, every single player had less money than at the beginning–not an ideal outcome.
Still, despite all the problems, the core concept seemed promising enough to pursue. Corporate America was born. And the rest is history.