Simulating the European Parliament with a deck of cards, and other bright ideas

As I noted last week, the research project I’m involved with – INOTLES – is moving into its next phase, with a meeting in Brussels. I talked in that post about my plans for the next six months, but didn’t say much about what I was going to do now. After some reflection, I think I’ve finally decided.

This comes back to another of the recurrent themes of this blog: the search for inspiration.

My original plan for Brussels had been to run the standard introductory session that I have developed over the past couple of years for new and potential users of simulations. It covers the main issues, offers some ideas and generally seems to be well-received.

However, it is just that: standard. I know my audience is there specifically for using simulations on the European Union, so it would be senseless to use examples that aren’t EU-related.

Which left me in a bit of dilemma.

I usually kick off with Victor’s state of nature game, because it’s quick and simple, plus it gets people moving about, which I always like to see. But the concept of a state of nature isn’t really very EU. At all. Regardless of your theoretical viewpoint.

On the other hand, my EU games are all a bit involved, so not suitable for this kind of session. With one exception.

My power game has had a long and chequered history: as I’ve written about before, each time I’ve tried it, it’s not quite done what I wanted, so it all got a bit lost in itself.

My solution – which came to me during a quiet moment over the weekend – was to mash up Victor’s game with mine, to make another one.

I’ll be posting the full game-play on my website shortly*, but in essence it runs like this:

All players are allocated into four groups and randomly pick a playing card (2-10 only). They are told that all of them together make an international parliament, made up of the four countries in which they are sitting: each player is a political party and has one vote. The aim is two-fold: to build as large a coalition as possible and to maximise your influence.

Coalitions are valued by the number of votes they command from players, so the tendency should be to have either one very large group or a consensus.

Influence, however, is measured by the proximity of players, as measured by the difference in face value of their playing card. The difference is weighted as follows:

Difference between face values of players’ cards Influence points
0 + 2
-/+ 1 + 1
-/+ 2 0
-/+ 3 – 1
-/+ 4 – 2
-/+ 5 – 3
-/+ 6 – 4
-/+ 7 – 5
-/+ 8 – 6
-/+ 9 – 7


Thus a player holding a 5 card, in coalition with players holding 3, 5, 8 and 9 would have 5 votes and -1 influence (0+2-1-2).

The influence criterion should make players tend to keep coalitions tight and focused,, counter-acting the coalition criterion. There is a Pareto optimal solution for the group – which I’ll not share now – but that depends on the level of coordination between players.

Ultimately, the game should lead to a pattern that mirrors several of the processes found in the European Parliament – like the power game before it, but without the complications that game produced. Players should break up their national groups and for trans-national coalitions that become less stable the larger or diverse they are.

As you might have already guessed, I’ve not been able to test this game yet, so Brussels will be my first time for it. In my mind’s eye, I can see several ways that it could be extended and deepened, but that’s for another time. I can certainly learn from any failure in the game, but I feel quite confident that it should work, given that rules are minimal and incentives are pretty clear.

As such, I’d like to think I’ve got a new way of exploring this political institution in a relatively simple way that informs about logics, if not close detail. As always, I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

    • Today I’m doing the very British academic thing of external examining, where I get to check on the marking of students at another institution and make comments at the exam board. Hours of fun all round.

Postscript–this game is also discussed at:


2 Replies to “Simulating the European Parliament with a deck of cards, and other bright ideas”

  1. Reblogged this on Games Without Frontiers and commented:
    This could serve as a great introductory experience as a prelude to studying any international organization’s general assembly, parliament, or other deliberative body. Takeaways and debriefing notes could then be used by learners as they investigate the details and mechanics of the UN, EU, Arctic Council, or and more. It is essential that students work towards mastery of the political dynamics of power, voting blocs, cooperation (among other concepts), regardless of the cases or examples they encounter in their studies. Using elegant games and simulations like this one will help to ensure that learners have a grounded, meaningful experience before embarking on their specific inquires.

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