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 Quick Exercise on Confirmation Bias and Hypothesis Testing

This neat exercise featured on the New York Times takes a few seconds to play and includes a neat set of examples of how confirmation bias impacts government policy and corporate America.

Basically, you are presented with 3 numbers in a sequence, and asked to guess the rule that governs the sequence. You can enter in any 3 numbers you like, and the system will tell you whether or not your sequence follows the rule or not. When you are ready to guess, you enter it in but you receive no second chances. Apparently 78% of people make a guess without getting a single ‘no’–and most get the rule wrong.

The example in the NY Times is ‘2, 4, 8’. A number of possible rules could come to mind–must contain multiples of 2, or even numbers, or that the number doubles the one before it. The actually rule in this case is even simpler: the number must be larger than the one before it, meaning that ‘4, 8, 16’ works, but so does ‘1, 10, 3593’.

They don’t mention it in the article, but this exercise can adapted to teach hypothesis testing. Used in class, you can put the sequence on the board and have students suggest other sequences, which you then judge as either following or not following the rule. They have to use this information to come up with the right answer.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because one of the very first entries on this blog was about the board game Zendo, which does precisely this, only with physical pieces rather than numbers. I still use Zendo on day 1 of my methods class, and find it a really useful tool for teaching a variety of methodological skills. This numerical version is a great, easy activity to pull out for a quick fix on helping students with their logical thinking.

Confirmation Games

KatnissThe New York Times recently published an interactive illustration of confirmation bias: guess the rule obeyed by a sequence of three numbers. I won’t go into detail about the game other than to say that it’s wonderfully simple and I definitely fell into the mind trap. Some implications for politics and business are presented after players submit their answers and this can provide a launch point for class discussion.

The puzzle nicely complements the Zendo game in which players create hypotheses about an arrangement of blocks — by demonstrating the cognitive biases that affect much of our decision making.

Reflections on a prisoner’s dilemma: guest post from Katherine Wright

In this week’s seminars for our first-year module Introduction to Politics: Power and the State, on Rational Choice theory, I ran a prisoner’s dilemma game with the students. Students were told that they had been arrested for a crime along with their accomplice and could not communicate with this partner in crime.

In each of the three seminar groups we played 2 rounds of the game. For the first round I gave them a name of a celebrity (and I settled on Kim Kardashian as someone they MUST have heard of [certainly have here at ALPSBlog]) on a piece of paper. I told them that they were not allowed to show the name they had to anyone else in the class and that if they had their own name to let me know. I wanted to give them the impression that they did not all have the same name and that someone could have their name.

Prisoners dilemma

After the first round I tallied up on the board who had betrayed/stayed silent and asked each student to justify their reasoning.

The second round saw the students given a name of a classmate, someone among the 12 or so students in the class that day.

The students began to see how their perceptions of their classmates influenced their decision to betray them or stay silent. Many in the second round chose to stay silent because they had seen their partner in crime stay silent in the first round, only to find that their partner had completely shifted positions in the second round and they were left feeling betrayed. Perhaps next time I will play the two rounds without the students revealing how they have voted in the first round until after we have played the second round..

Some students spoke about how their conscience would not let them betray their partner, that they had been brought up not to “rat out” someone else or that the their partner in crime  was a friend they trusted. Others were resolutely rational and said that they would not risk 10 years in prison and 5 years was clearly the most rational decision to make.

Surprisingly, among the three seminar groups the first group – just BSc Politics students – was the most rational with the majority choosing to betray their partner in crime. I had expected that the final group – with BSc Politics & Economics students in it – would take the most rational stance, this was far from the case however and in the main they showed a noble sense of camaraderie (along with the second group of BSc Politics & Sociology students)!

For the last two groups, those who took a risk on a longer sentence and acted ‘irrationality’ were rewarded. However, for the first group this was not the case and those who played it safe and acted ‘rationally’ were rewarded. This set the groups up for an interesting discussion on the merits of Rational Choice theory and one in which I think they felt invested – especially given that many of their peers had just betrayed them!

Katharine A. M. Wright is a Doctoral Researcher and Seminar Tutor in the School of Politics, where she holds a Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences Scholarship. Her thesis examines NATO’s implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

POL1012 Group 1

POL1012 Group 2

POL1012 Group 3

When Hobbes Turned Liberal Institutionalist….

This week I returned to my roots to replay another version of Victor Asal’s Hobbes game. One of my favorite things about the Hobbes game is that it can always be slightly altered to introduce new kinds of interaction in the game.

In order to do this you really do need to play Victor’s original game first.

Then, a week or two later…. hand out the cards again. I wanted Wednesday’s interaction to be more akin to the picture of the international system represented by liberal institutional models of interaction. Specifically, I wanted to introduce variation, not simply in terms of individual power levels, but types of potential cooperation.

Tell them, today, the kind of card you get matters. (watch them peer at the front of their card anxiously….see how the people holding aces and kings begin to smile)

Project an image of the hierarchy of poker hands on the board and explain which kinds of hands are better than others. (you will get confused looks from people who have never played cards…don’t linger on this …. just smile and say…. everything will be alright)

The text and images below are from the website but you can find the image anywhere really.

Straight Flush & Royal Flush


Four of a Kind:

Four of a Kind

Full House:

Full House





Three of a kind:

Three of a Kind

Two pair

Two Pair

One pair

One Pair

High card

High Card

Now… tell them that individual cards can challenge each other. In that case, the higher value card wins, takes the other card, and then the loser sits down.

BUT… they are also free to create pairs, triples, and even complete 5 card poker hands. (I limited them to five…. continue to ignore the people who don’t know cards)

Then…. say…. go!

Observations by Students in Debrief:

  1. MASSIVE VARIATION in behavior from the original game….. some team up and produce collective security others go it alone.

  2. Students who had initially powerful cards (Aces) felt more assured than those who had low number cards. But everyone had an opportunity to collaborate to build a good poker hand in order to feel safer.

  3. Students reported feeling less concerned about relative gains and more interested in absolute gains as they searched for other potential allies.

  4. All the students agreed that the structure of the game more closely aligned with what they imagined the international system to be like: more opportunities for cooperation in many different ways, but still anarchic and fraught with distrust and fear for survival.

  5. Students who had no idea about poker hands were sometimes preyed upon, but most often, were assisted by colleagues with similar cards.

Prior to this exercise the students were unconvinced by the Kupchans‘ work on collective security and the institutionalist perspective. They preferred the ‘pragmatism’ of Mearsheimer and Waltz. After the exercise, the students reported understanding, more clearly, what the Kupchans’ were getting at. I’ll definitely do this again in tandem with the original form of the Hobbes game.

Identity Politics Activity

Due to some late summer travel and other obligations, I’m working this week to put together my fall syllabus for Intro to Comparative Politics. One of my favorite class activities comes about mid-way through the semester when we talk about identity politics. One of the main ideas I hope the students take away is that identities can be manipulated for political reasons. More specifically, the following activity has these learning objectives:

  • Explain the difference between symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.
  • Identify the conditions under which particular identity categories will be politically salient.
  • Predict the consequences of a permanently excluded minority.
  • Compare and contrast the political implications of fluid and fixed identities; symmetric and asymmetric cleavages.

Students are given colored index cards to represent one identity category (Green or Pink) with a language written on it (I use Esperanto or Ido). The “Round 1” table is projected with the number of students in each group (see Table at end of post) and students are asked to form a governing coalition that represents at least 51% of the population.

Once a coalition is formed, we discuss (1) what coalition was formed, (2) why, and (3) what happens to those that are excluded? I then project the map of the hypothetical country, showing a significant natural resource in the area controlled by the permanent majority. The students predict the likely consequences of the permanent majority’s control over a natural resource (I use a bag of leftover Halloween candy to illustrate the “natural resource” that the permanent majority can choose to distribute as it wishes). Next, they discuss the likely responses of the permanently excluded minority (e.g. civil war, terrorism).

I collect and redistribute cards and project the “Round 2” table. Students again form coalitions and we continue the discussion. In “Round 2” there are different possible coalitions and identity categories are fluid. The students then compare the political implications (likely democratic stability, probability of conflict between ethnic groups) in the different rounds.

The tables below give a rough approximation of how I allocate the identities, but the table I project in class has the number of students rather than percentages. What’s important is that the “green” coalition is “obvious” in round 1, while the second round has multiple possible coalitions.

Round 1

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 30%
Pink 10% 20%

Round 2

Esperanto Ido
Green 40% 20%
Pink 20% 20%


Let me know if you have any questions or how it works if you give it a try.

Midterm Review Game: Trivial Pursuit

As midterms approach, its a good time to think about how we help our students prepare for their exams.  Approaches vary widely: some professors design study guides and hold extra review sessions; others are more of the ‘cut the apron strings’ mode and leave students to study completely on their own.  I’m agnostic toward the method, as long as the intention behind it is sound; as with most things in teaching, the tool (say lecture, or simulations, or using a study guide) should be chosen because its the best fit for a specific task and a specific group of students, not because we are in love with the tool itself.

In my introductory courses in international relations and American politics (the only times I employ a midterm), I am a fan of the review game. My exams rarely focus on definition of terms, so I find a traditional study guide completely counterproductive: students focus on learning a list of terms, rather than thinking about application, analysis, or synthesis.  A review game like Trivial Pursuit can put the onus of preparation on the students themselves (where it belongs!), and forces them to think about questions, rather than just answers.  It also makes the process of review way more fun than a standard review session. This works great for a final exam review, too–and if you do it twice, you may find that the students produce even better questions the second time around.

Here’s a how to:

  • Equipment needed: any version of trivial pursuit–just the board, die, and game pieces. A typical board is pictured above
  • Two weeks before the exam, divide the material on the exam into 5 or 6 categories.  For my intro IR class, these are: conceptual foundations (levels of analysis, states v. nations, sovereignty, etc); historical context of IR; Realism and Power Politics; Idealism and Neo-Liberalism; Constructivism and other ISMS (Marxism, Feminism, etc); and Current Issues (which covers class discussions and assignments).  For American politics, these are usually Popular Culture and Citizenship; The founding and the Constitution; federalism; civil liberties; civil rights; and current issues.  Your categories will certainly differ, and can always include a ‘wild card’ option.  The game would work just as well for comparative politics or any other course.
  • Pass out or post a one page description of the review game that also serves as a ‘midterm reminder’ guide.  Mine usually just notes what the exam will cover, the format of the exam, some brief tips on how to study, a few sample questions, and info about the review game.  Contact me if you’d like to get a copy of mine as a guide.
  • Assign students to each category (randomly is best), and tell them they are each responsible for producing a certain of questions (with answers) on that category.  Depending on the number of students, I’ll ask for between 5-10 questions.  You can decide whether a certain number have to be multiple choice (mine tend to go for short answer).  They also have to provide the answer.  Note down who is assigned to what category.
  • The questions are their ticket to the review.  Students who do not turn in questions cannot participate in the review. Added incentives can include extra credit for the winning team, and I will tell them that particularly good questions may show up on the exam itself (i always try to use at least one, sometimes with some minor edits).
  • Questions can be submitted in a variety of ways.  The easiest for the instructor is to have students write them on index cards–category at the top, question on one side, answer on the other.  They can bring them in the day of the review.  I usually have them submit them online a day or two early so I can organize the questions, and if I’m feeling charitable, post them for everyone to see after the review.  It is VERY important that you know who submitted which questions.
  • On the day of the review or sometime before, divide the students into two (or more if you have a large class; 10 people per team is a good maximum) teams making sure that there is someone from each category on each team.  Then make sure that you organize the questions (whether on note cards or electronic) so that teams do not get asked the questions they wrote.  This is really important, otherwise people just answer the questions they wrote without anyone having to think about the question.  I like to assign teams in advance, and make adjustments last minute if someone doesn’t show up.
  • Bring additional questions. Many of the questions the students write will overlap, and so its great to have some of your own to use in a crunch.  This is where those textbook test banks come in really handy.
  • Ask each team to choose a die roller and a spokesperson.  This minimizes down time during the review, and makes clear who is communicating the ‘final answer’ to the instructor, who asks all the questions.
  • Arrange the seats in the classroom around a central table so everyone can see the game board.
  • Assign each category a color. Put it on the board so everyone can see.
  • The basic rules of trivial pursuit apply.  Students roll the die and move their pieces, and answer questions corresponding to the color they land on.  Correct answers allow them to go again; incorrect answers give the next team a turn. The large spaces at the end of the spokes of the wheel earn correct answers a little colored wedge; the goal of the game is to collect one wedge of each color and then answer a question correctly after moving to the center of the board.  The only additional rule I use is that after either three correct answers or earning a wedge, the next team gets to go.  Otherwise you can have a team go on a spree, which can lead to students on other teams checking out of the game.

That’s it!  It involves very little preparation on the part of the professor, and instead puts the burden on the students, which is great for us but also for them, as the process of writing questions and then working together to answer them can really help them retain information.  I’ve seen the average on the midterm improve since using this review game, although the usual limits on a such a claim apply since I do not have pretests or true control groups.

Try it out, and as always, report back here on how it goes.