Transcript of the podcast published on August 28th, 2011.
This time I am going to talk about another new game genre that I will tentatively call “Paranoia” games. Again this subgenre can hold many games that can be quite different from each other, but that all have the common element of a creating a feeling of fear that something bad/ominous/dangerous etc. is happening.
Let’s take “Battlestar Galactica” for example – of course it is a cooperative game, but the element of the Cylon traitor creates a tension that can only be described as paranoia. Who can you trust? Can you trust anybody? You can’t even trust yourself, as you might turn out to be the traitor in round 2!
I remember a memorable game of “Battlestar Galactica” at Boardgamegeek where one player built up the trust of all players including me. Because of this he was entrusted with a nuke in a crucial situation, a decision that was also supported by me (I was playing the president). I suddenly had this feeling of something not quite right about his eagerness, but it was too late – he nuked us all into oblivion which came as a total shock to everybody. The player actually felt embarrassed about his successful deceit, but I think it was excellent and in the spirit of the game. This is what I call paranoia, and I love it!
There are other examples of new games using this mechanic. “Werewolf” is of course very popular, but also its related game “The Resistance” manages to create the same feeling of mistrust.
But what was the first game ever that brought paranoia to the game table? The answer is perhaps surprising – very probably it was poker, or any luck game involving three crucial elements:
1) other players that you are competing against instead of competing with luck itself
2) bluffing, i.e. lying about one’s hidden assets
3) something at stake, i.e. lots of money that you are risking.
Actually it is very insightful to compare the two unlikely games Battlestar Galactica and Poker. In Poker you are competing with other players for a pot of money, in Battlestar Galactica you are battling for the survival of the human race. The latter is of course only a fantasy for the sake of creating tension, but one can compare the dread of losing real money to the dread of risking the whole human race in your imagination.
In Battlestar Galactica the players you compete with are the Cylon traitors, it is not only an anonymous game system. Once you enter the bidding in Poker a situation is created that is actually very similar to a round of playing cards to resolve an event in Battlestar Galactica. Some players will be honest – their cards are really valuable or they do their best to save the day in BGG. But there will also be players who only pretend to go with the flow, who have the hidden agenda to cheat you. Of course this is where the similarity between these two games ends big time, but the feeling while playing the game is not entirely dissimilar. And there is also the meta-element: once you mistrust a player you will tend to mistrust him again and again – a trap that many poker players will fall in again and again.
Not surprisingly the rise of advanced paranoia games comes roughly at the same time as the height of paranoia in recent history – the Cold War. Diplomacy – perhaps the grandfather of all paranoia games – was created 1954, which I think is very telling. But it was the 70s which really brought the concept to the fore. I would immediately think of 2 highly influential games that involve paranoia: in 1978, Junta players are at the whim of a merciless and often crazy dictator who might murder them at a whim. Hey, they might even be that dictator. The game is mostly meant in fun, but some players actually get very upset about it!
In Dune from 1979 players always have to fear that Baron Harkonnen has bribed their leaders. One also can think of the role playing game “Paranoia” which was the first role playing game to give players hidden agendas and which encouraged the game master to make the players mistrust or kill each other constantly. Later “Republic of Rome” came along; a game so full of paranoia and machiavellism that the rules say that it makes “Diplomacy” (already a vicious game) like “Snakes and Ladders” compared to it. And the list goes on.
Let’s try a definition: “Paranoia games are games that involve hidden agendas and which make mistrust, secret dealing or bluffing so much a part of the game that they are integral to the game experience”.
Moritz over and out.