The Wicked Games We Play: A Review of Agenda

Today’s post is from Casey Delehanty, doctoral candidate in political science at Florida State University.

Agenda BoardMany attendees at this year’s APSA annual meeting were given a free copy of Agenda, a board game that claims to be “the culmination of the journey to discover a way for politics and the political games people play to not only be better understood but be fun at the same time.” Initially, I planned to give it a play test with some colleagues and submit a review that touched on the best ways instructors could utilize the game for pedagogical purposes. As it turns out, Agenda is a terrible game. As one play-tester commented, “This board game offends me not only as someone who studies politics but as someone who likes board games.”

In Agenda, players pick one of seven possible “political personas,” each with its own political viewpoints—such as Socialist, Corporatist, Moralist, or Libertarian. Players take turns moving around the board via die rolls, and each square they land on affects their personal resources in the form of votes, money, and poll standing. If they possess the requisite resources when passing an Agenda button, they can enact a “policy plank,” a major policy which their character holds dear. The first player to enact an agreed upon number of “policy planks” wins. While this may seem like a fairly simple setup, the actual rules of Agenda resemble corporate tax codes in their complexity. This brings us to my first point:

Make your instructions simple

I’m no stranger to big, complicated manuals and I’m not expecting literary prose from a game manual, but the manual for Agenda is Byzantine to the point of absurdity. For example, there are seven different categories of cards, all of which receive their own section within the game manual, despite the fact that they all generally do the same things. It took four political science graduate students around 30-45 minutes to get around halfway through the manual, at which point we became frustrated and decided to “learn while playing.”

This kind of needless complexity can mean a quick death for classroom simulations. Any simulation’s complexity should be spread out among students so that the amount of knowledge required of any individual student is relatively low. Agenda places needlessly intricate rules on top of what is essentially a very simple game, necessitating a long and arduous learning curve before implementation.

Make game decisions meaningful

There’s an old web comic of philosophers playing board games that came to mind when playing Agenda. In it, “Camus” declares that Candyland is the “most brilliant game ever made!” Since players in Candyland move along by drawing cards, players lack agency and must supply themselves with narratives about their progress that, given the nature of the game, are patently absurd.

Likewise, players of Agenda have no real agency or need for strategy. A player’s choice of “political persona” has no discernable impact on his or her available options or the course of the game. “Policy planks” also have no significant effect. Once we successfully enacted a “plank,” nothing really happened beyond checking off a box on the back of our character cards. In all, there was no real strategy to the game at all; players just clump around the board hoping to land in the right sequence of squares to end the game.

The entire point of using classroom simulations is to force students to wrestle with dilemmas that resemble real-life political phenomena. In Agenda, players are reduced to dice-rolling automatons who only manage the accumulation of money, votes, and poll standing.

Try to approximate real life

One of the most frustrating aspects of Agenda is the degree to which the game mechanics are based less on politics than the jokes people tell about politics. There isn’t really anything here that approximates reality, and there is little to no explanation of how policies are actually made.

Agenda MoralistAs an example, the Moralist in our game managed to enshrine Christianity as the official state religion as an “agenda plank,” despite the earth-shaking changes to U.S. institutional structure that would have to occur to make that a real-life possibility. Moreover, there is never any explanation as to the actual identity or function of any of the personas. President? Member of Congress? Dictator for life? Agenda won’t tell you. And how does this persona enact a policy? By obtaining more than $1 million in money, 500,000 votes, and more than 50 percent in poll standing. Money for what? Votes in what election? More than 50 percent in what poll? Don’t worry about it, says Agenda.

This is perhaps the most frustrating part of Agenda. Rather than put any effort into mimicking real-life processes, the game seems to be nothing more than a platform for unfunny and potentially offensive jokes about politics. For example, one board square reads “make insensitive remark about rape: lose one million votes.” One card states “You are a member of a minority ethnic group. Lose ten poll points.” These features inhibit understanding by caricaturing different segments of the political spectrum while at the same time obscuring the actual policy process. There is no coalition-building, no log-rolling, no calculation of any kind.

Ideally, classroom simulations and games impart at least some understanding of real-life political phenomena. Game mechanics need not mirror real-life processes exactly, but they should at least give some insight into how these processes work, or what it’s like to operate under the various institutional constraints that actual politics present. By contrast, I think that playing Agenda could actually cause students to know less about politics than they did before going into the game.

A fourth way of teaching elections

Simon just posted about 3 ways of teaching the 2015 British elections, and I thought I would chime in with a fourth way to teach elections: the student-led discussion.

Essentially you have students work in small groups to lead a discussion about the candidates for a particular office or the debate on a ballot issue.  They get 10 minutes to present the candidates/issue (usually incorporating videos or news articles or prezi/powerpoint), and then have to lead a 20 minute discussion amongst their peers.  The instructor sits in the audience and does not participate, but takes notes throughout, particularly on any factual mistakes, and debriefs the group at the end.   In the US this works really well because the elections usually have a multitude of local and state offices that the students might not otherwise know about, such as judges, auditors, and assemblypersons.  It is also a highly portable exercise, in that its easy to swap out whatever offices are contested in a given term. When there isn’t an election going on–or if you are teaching about a country that does not have fixed elections– you have them do it on ‘current issues’ in politics instead. You can make the leadership itself a small portion of the grade–say 5%–and student participation affects their overall participation grade.

I’ve used an activity like this in my intro to American Politics class regularly since 2010.  It usually works really, really well.  I have the advantage of usually teaching this class in a 4 hour block for only 8 weeks–so the August-October class ends just before the November elections.  That means usually in the fall section we do Campaigns, and in the spring, Current Issues.  For campaigns, i usually select the specific offices we cover–if a race is completely uncontested, its not going to lead to a lot of debate–but with Current Issues, I let the students choose, although I retain a veto that I’ve almost never had to actually use.


3 ways to teach the 2015 General Election

UK_opinion_polling_2010-2015For a very long time, teaching about British general elections was hampered by one simple fact: you were never quite sure when they would happen. Unless there was a clear play to sit out the maximum term (as in 1992), then students and instructors would be at the whim of the occupant of No.10.

So the introduction of fixed term parliaments by the current administration is a real boon: we have a date (7 May), which also falls nicely towards the end of the teaching period in the spring semester. This lets us think about some creative ways we might teach about it.

I’m assuming that those devoting entire modules/courses to the subject will already be up and running, but for the rest of us, there’s still the opportunity to import aspects of what’s happening into the classroom. Consider these three starting points.

1: real-time information

The most obvious thing to do is to get students aware of, and discussing, what’s happening right now. Major news outlets are setting up micro-sites for the election, aggregating content. Likewise, there are some excellent resources, including those handling polling data (here and here) or more general academic comment.

What’s becoming evident is that there is a huge amount of near-instantaneous material/comment available, so setting up a module account on Twitter to collect and share it is a great way to capture this and funnel it into the class: perhaps you set the last half-hour of a session to discuss what’s happening.

2: active debate

Last semester I got my students to role-play a debate on the television debates, playing different parties. This topic is still on-going and gets the students into thinking about the media, the status of parties and the semantics of public debate, in a form that is readily accessible.

If that’s not your thing, then you could run a hustings, or a putative post-election coalition negotiation. All of these active-learning models force students to take their knowledge and apply it to a situation, where they can see how positions interact with each other and where presentational (and representational) factors can strongly influence the course of events.

3: comparative approaches

Aware as I am that most of our readers aren’t UK-based, it’s also worth thinking about using the British case as a comparator for your own national system. As I’ve noted, the quantity and quality of material available is extremely high, and students’ awareness of the basic features of the system should be pretty good (at least in the relative sense). Couple this to the obvious differences between your country and the UK (electoral system, parliamentary government, party structure, media structure, etc.) and you have a great opportunity to leverage more insight into how national polities work.

This might be of comparing electoral campaigning, or issue development, or even just how your country sees what is going on elsewhere in the world (this last one might well be most suitable for those places that think they are the centre of the world (ahem)).

As I say, this is just a first effort, but if you have more suggestions, either of techniques or of resources, then do please post below in the comment box.

Refuting an Expert

Bacon Skepticism On The Rise
Bacon Skepticism On The Rise

I’m going to guess that Simon’s reference to Serbian pig-farming in his last post means that one of the books he read in 2014 was From Voting to Violence by Jack Snyder (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000). For several years I used this book for an assignment in comparative politics that I called Refuting an Expert.

The student’s job in this assignment was to select one of the forty-two different claims Snyder makes in the book and analyze why the claim was incorrect. I’ve put the complete list of claims here. A few highlights:

  • Serbia gained its independence in the early 1800s because of the interests of Serbian pig merchants.
  • Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched the war in Chechnya to save his administration.
  • Israeli Arabs tolerate discrimination because of the economic opportunities that Israel affords them.

To help students do a credible job of challenging Snyder, a supposed expert on the subject of the book, I gave students these instructions:

Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism
Cats Fear Cow Chauvinism

All quality scholarship is based upon the creation and analysis of arguments. A person asks a question, gathers information, and proposes an answer to the question that is based on that information. The quality of the answer depends on both the accuracy of the information gathered and how well that information has been organized into an argument. In more technical terms, the validity of any truth claim rests upon empirical evidence and logical consistency.

When analyzing the quality of your and others’ research:

  • The first step is to identify what question is being investigated. What is the puzzle that the author is trying to explain?
  • The second step is to identify what the author claims is the cause and effect of this puzzle.
  • The third step is to identify how the author links cause to effect. What does the author claim is the relationship between the two?
  • The fourth step is to identify how the author measures changes in whatever is being used to indicate cause and effect. Are numerical data being used? Do the data actually signify what the author says they signify? Should the author be using some other kind of data?

Authors often use certain words that provide clues that will help you find all of this information. These words are:

  • Main, primary, only
  • Not, cannot, no, never, seldom, rarely
  • None, neither, nor
  • All, any, entire, most, each
  • Must, always, generally, often, will
  • But (especially if combined with “only” or “must”)
  • However, although, in contrast, contrary, instead, unless, despite
  • False, incorrect, contradict, fail
  • True, correct
  • Should, ought, shall
  • Cause, effect, reason, depends, because, imply
  • Assumes, assumption
  • Claim, argument, argue, contend
  • Proof, prove, evidence, empirical
  • In fact, thus, therefore, of course, thereby, similarly
  • Tend, tendency
  • Conclude, conclusion, result

The Terrible Twos

TantrumTwo brief items in honor of the second anniversary of MOOCs.

First, David Caputo at Pace University has created a MOOC on the 2014 Congressional elections, which started on March 3 but for which people can still enroll. Additional information can be found at the link above or at the Blackboard Coursesites catalog (just look for the title of the MOOC).

Second, has an interesting post about how MOOCs are doing in five dimensions that were proposed by John McArthur of the Brookings Institution: motivationexplanationtutorshipinteraction, and feedback. Of particular interest to me:

  • Evaluations of MOOCs that focused on low retention rates lacked validity because they didn’t account for the varying intentions of MOOC participants.
  • MOOCs have made the traditional practice of classroom lecturing — one-way instructor to student content delivery — obsolete. If you don’t want to flip your classroom, someone else does.


The Redistricting Game

This one is so well known that I was surprised when I realized that we had yet to feature it.  The Redistricting Game (at is a great online tool for learning about districts, redistricting, and gerrymandering.  Players work on behalf of one of the political parties and are tasked with redrawing district lines on several different missions, from simply making population size equal and districts compact and contiguous to partisan gerrymandering or ensuring minority representation.  The gameplay is a map with small dots representing the people according to their party affiliation and ethnicity, and cities are noted with little house icons and high population density (i.e., lots of dots). As you redraw the lines, elected officials give you feedback through their animated expressions as well as written comments–happy if their reelection is ensured, concerned if the divide is a toss up between parties, and outraged if their district will flip to the other party.  Once you meet the mission’s objectives, you submit the plan for a vote and eventually the Governor’s signature.

Its a great game to assign students either before or after learning about redistricting.  It takes what can be a bit dry of a lesson–the rules and regulations of district sizes and shapes–and makes it concrete and active.  Its also quite user-friendly and is entirely free.  As a supplement to traditional class readings and lectures, it works really well in teaching the basics of the subject and you may find that students will play it for far longer than assigned.

Colbert on Redistricting and Gerrymandering

If you are planning on covering redistricting, gerrymandering, incumbency advantage, or electoral college reform, think about including the Word from Tuesday night’s (1-22-13) Colbert Report–‘Win, Lose, or Redraw’–where he attempts to explain how House Republicans could get over a million fewer votes than Democrats but win 33 more seats.  It would make a great intro to a lesson on Congress in introductory classes.

Includes the classic lines: “Instead of voters getting to pick their leaders, leaders get to pick their voters!” and “you must listen to these voters…and then make sure they cannot be heard on election day.”