I just spent the last few days at the Urban Affairs Association 2011 conference in New Orleans. It was an amazing collection of researchers and practitioners working on urban issues, with many papers focused on the post-Katrina recovery. I also had the pleasure of meeting Matt Cazessus and Colby King, urban sociologists from the University of South Carolina, who have designed a game to simulate the process of urban development. With everything else going on at the conference, they did not actually run a playtest, but I have to say that it looks very promising, and I’m looking forward to playing it and to trying it out in a classroom environment.
The game is constructed to illustrate various urban concepts, such as regime theory, which emphasizes the interdependence of governmental and non-governmental forces. To this end, the players take on different roles, such as the mayor, organized labor, or the chamber of commerce. A game design problem emerges in that it can be very difficult to create fair game where players have different goals (i.e., different winning conditions), so how would you create a game with identifiable actors who, in the real world, would have different goals? King and Cazessus borrow a mechanic from games like Puerto Rico, where players adopt different roles on different turns. In the context of teaching an urban politics class, that means that each player gets to experience these different roles, while solving the game design problem by having the player strive for the same goal (maximizing income from development) while the roles are nonetheless differentiated in their power and influence.
The board represents a platted street and block grid. Imagine New York City in the early 1800s. The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 has just been adopted, so development must take place within the blocks that have been laid out on paper, even if the streets have not even been extended that far North on Manhattan Island. Each round, each player proposes a development plan, which is a set of roads and buildings to be built, along with where (within the established grid) they are to be built. Then the players vote among the plans, and the plan with the most votes wins. As observed by one playtester, the players are both competing and cooperating in the process. I asked the designers about the power of the mayor in the game, and they said that the mayor is a powerful role in the game, but if the player with the mayor role is too autocratic or self-interested, the other players will usually gang up to defeat the mayor’s proposals. And, since roles get shuffled during the game, someone else will get to be mayor soon…
The game only exists in prototype currently, but if you are interested in finding out more about it, particularly for classroom use, you may contact the designers at AudaCityTheGame@gmail.com, or check out their Facebook page.