Terraforming Mars and Intergenerational Politics
If I’ve seen you in the past month or so, I’ve probably talked you into playing Terraforming Mars, currently the 6th highest ranked board game on BoardGameGeek. Maybe you’re Bard Hunter, multibillionaire CEO of Credicor, and I’m the faceless head of the United Nations Mars Initiative. We’re in a race to score victory points by increasing Mars’s temperature and oxygen levels, placing ocean and greenery tiles, developing key projects, raising animals…basically, colonizing Mars and making it more habitable. The game absolutely breaks my brain and I’ve still never won.
So naturally, I just added an expansion which introduces intergenerational politics, and that’s what I want to talk about today.
It’s called, fittingly enough, the Turmoil expansion.
Last week on Twitch, I read some of Gaming: The Future’s Language, a breathless rhapsody on technological acceleration written in 1974 by Richard D. Duke. Here’s how Chapter 1 opens:
Humankind is a little harried of late. The naked ape barely blinked only to discover that his animal being has moved from the cave to the moon with little time for adjustment. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to derive a valid “alienation index” for society; nonetheless, evidence exists that all is not right with Western civilization.
Duke argues that as the world becomes more complex and interconnected, we need to reason about and convey gestalt (“guh·shtaalt”). That’s when a whole is more (or less) than the sum of its parts. When 1+1=3, you can’t understand the whole by breaking it down and seeing how the pieces work in isolation. You have to grok how the pieces interact.
But Duke thinks ‘sequential’ languages like English developed in a far simpler, more linear world, and just aren’t up to the task of conveying gestalt. His solution? We need the language of gaming to model complex systems holistically and gain practical knowledge working within them. And he’s pretty excited about it:
there is hope that the possibility for a quantum jump exists—that communication can move from its rigid and limiting sequentiality to a gestalt mode, and that this Future’s Language [of gaming] can be used for simultaneous translation in our modern Tower of Babel.
So let’s think of gaming as a language for a minute. (You know, C. Thi Nguyen does say a collection of games can be a library of agencies...)
Here’s how Turmoil conveys the gestalt of intergenerational politics. Each round in Terraforming Mars is called a generation.
You draw from a deck of Global Events to see what’s happening this generation, and you can see two more Global Events coming next generation and the one after that.
So maybe this generation, there’s a Pandemic. And next generation, there will be Riots. And the generation after that, climate change (on Mars) will lead to a Global Dust Storm.
Whatever the Global Events happen to be, having political Influence will help you out. You earn Influence by playing and promoting your delegates. Each generation, you get one delegate for free and can pay for more if you want. You slot your delegates into any of six different parties, each of which gives bonuses and monetary kickbacks to their preferred industry if they win. (I kept sending my delegates to the Mars First party so I’d be rewarded for putting a ton of buildings on Mars.) Whichever party has the most delegates wins! You get one Influence for having the winning party leader (in the ring of white chairs), and another for having someone in the winning party pews who’s got your back. You also get an Influence for being the Chair. (The old guy sitting alone in the middle.)
Here’s where this game blows my mind. Next generation, the winning party leader, now a wisened elder, becomes the new Chair, kicking out the last one. And all their followers get the heck out of politics.
(Technically, they’re returned to the Delegate Reserve.)
The moment where you slide your party leader up to become Chair is incredibly thematic and rewarding. Over generations, your party built up a plurality of seats and finally got over the hump for a win. Now your party leader is cemented as the untouchable Chair on the basis of last generation’s support. Way to go, that’s one influence. And then everyone else in your party not only disowns the Chair, but vacates politics altogether? How do I interpret that? I get why you’d want this mechanic from a game design perspective. You don’t want one party to win every generation on sheer momentum; the expansion is called Turmoil, for God’s sake. It’s nice to clear the board regularly, and in a way that makes players wonder whether they should add a short-lived delegate to the winning party for one influence, or try to contest and go for more. And should you whip up paid delegates to fight for control this generation, or continue to build a long-term coalition? The game asks you some great questions. But what’s the in-game logic? I get why the winning party leader becomes Chair—that delegate has the most support, or did before all their supporters got vaporized.
But where did the rest of the winning party go? Did they all become consultants or Ivy League professors or retire? If I know anything, it’s that politicians just. Won’t. Retire.
While we’re asking questions, why are upcoming Global Events foreseeable generations in advance? I remember realizing the whole Covid thing was Really Happening when the Jazz-Thunder game I was about to catch on TV got postponed moments before tipoff because Rudy Gobert tested positive.
Oh yeah, here he was two days before that:
Real Global Events can smack you in the face.
I get that games have to simplify real world complexities. But so much of the appeal of Terraforming Mars is that it offers a pretty realistic simulation overall, with one notable caveat—because the game is from 2016, there’s no real mention of how transformative AI will be by the 2400s. (Though I did double one city’s productivity by installing a robotic workforce...) But on the whole, this relatively simple political simulation gets a lot of stuff right:
Every generation, a new opposition rises. It’s really tough for one party to win back to back because everyone else has been building support since their last win. Emptying out the winning party helps to capture the ebb and flow of intergenerational politics, where it’s hard for one party to stay on top for generations at a time.
There’s a ton of room for political maneuvering. One player realized he should head multiple parties that could switch off control to give himself a better chance of owning the Chair every generation. Another hijacked my Mars First party right as I was about to appoint the Chair by flooding it with a bunch of her own paid delegates! Once she outnumbered me, she assumed party leadership and bumped my leader down to membership. That’s no way to treat the Bernie Sanders of Mars First! He didn’t stick around five generations for this. Shame on you, you know who you are. You’re way better than me at politics.
It’s amazing that I have to spend so much money jockeying for political position instead of actually terraforming Mars. But I can’t let you dictate what happens politically; if I cede politics completely, it will be very cheap and easy for you to reap huge rewards. You should invest in politics if I don’t. And if I do invest in politics, you should at least spend enough to keep things competitive. So we’re locked in a prisoner's dilemma where we’re both incentivized to defect by throwing money at politics no matter what the other does.
The game conceives of politics as a series of individual crises and opportunities to be managed without reference to any sort of long-term policy building. Global Event cards can give or take away resources or change the board state. But they’re random, disconnected events drawn one at a time. There’s no deep ideological commitment to your previous political investments, and halfway through the game I switched over to the Green party. But I think this is pretty effective. Just about every faction is a corporation (and I’m the UN). And this is an apt lens for capturing how corporations see politics: I get one delegate for free, just by being a major player on Mars. And then I can keep buying more as an investment. So what can a few more delegates get me this generation? Will they end up paying for themselves, or even making me money? Oo, owning the Chair next generation will save me four bucks and let me play this powerful card. That’s good stuff, I should start building a coalition...
Along these lines, seeing every upcoming Global Event in advance isn’t realistic. But it does let you plan ahead strategically. Is this the turn to go all-out to try to gain Influence? Or should I wait and build power quietly, and maybe add a single delegate to the current winning party? If the cards were facedown surprises, you’d never know when your particular interests were at stake until it was too late. It’s nice to be able to look at the board state and get at least a partial sense of everyone’s likely motivations and opportunities. (That’s also part of what makes Texas Holdem so much more compelling than Five-Card Draw.)
Those are just some of my thoughts, but maybe you can see why I keep thinking about this svelte Turmoil expansion with only 6 tiny pages of new info. Even where the individual rules are too simplified to make sense in isolation, the game captures the gestalt of political reality pretty well. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. And that’s an impressive achievement. In real life, crises and opportunities are more unpredictable, and some powerful folks seem to hang around forever. But the Turmoil expansion gave me a decent framework to start thinking about intergenerational (and interplanetary) politics by getting practical experience moving delegates around, getting outspent, outmaneuvered, and screwed over. It communicates political themes and ideas dynamically and interactively by offering a sandbox for players to explore together. It’s really intriguing stuff. You wanna play?
By the way! We still have a few spots left for our free workshop on ChatGPT and Bullshit. I’d love to see you there.