The Mercantilism Game - All About the Bullions (Part I)
Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower
The Best Laid Plans
I overthink when planning, laboring to anticipate and avoid potential problems. But game design is a harsh teacher, and I’ve learned that I create new problems as I compensate for those I foresee. There’s a common military saying that says “no plan survives beyond the first contact with the enemy.” It holds true for many areas, including how a game actually goes compared to how you think it’ll go.
So my series of posts on this game will look at what I wanted to do and contrast it with what I did. Some things go right and others go wrong—including teaching the opposite of one of my key learning objectives!
Un-boringification (Making Boring Topics Less Boring)
Economics and trade systems don’t excite me. Every year I have to cover the Transatlantic Economy with its impact on trade wars, and I have never found it interesting. So you can imagine how my students feel about it! A lot of its components could be fascinating, too, but for some reason they just don’t hook me.
So what better opportunity for designing a compelling game?
I checked for good games on the topic, and there are some decent ones out there. But I couldn’t find any that included a good dynamic of how mercantile policies adversely affected the colonies in these empires.
Here’s what I wanted to convey in the game:
Empires compete with each other to control trade
Wealth accumulation is seen as a zero-sum game
Wealth accumulation requires exporting more than you import
Colonists feel exploited by the policies of their mother country
Tensions from trade policies and competition can lead to war
I decided to try my hand at creating a resource-allocation game in which student groups represent either a mother country or its colony. In each round, the groups would have a certain number of resources to allocate into different categories.
In my first iteration of the game, mother countries would need to decide how to spread their 6 units of resources among the following:
Trading with their colony
Protecting their trade routes from other empires
Expanding their trade into other empires’ territory
Colonists had 4 resources to allocate among:
Trading with their mother country
Illegally manufacturing their own products
Smuggling their goods to other empires
In each round, there’d be time for negotiations, after which each group would retire privately to decide how they’d allocate their resources. There’s more to the game than that, of course, but that’s the basic backbone of the game.
In order for a mother country to win, their empire had to acquire more bullion than any other. But the colony needed more than just that to win. Not only did their empire have to accumulate the most bullion, but the colony had to accumulate more products than any other colony. I built in restrictions to make it so there was no way they’d be able to do that without engaging in illegal activities.
In this way I wanted to foster tension between the colony and their empire. They’d have to work together to win, but they’d also be driven apart. I also hoped that these conflicts would lead to some good scheming and mistrust, just for the fun of it.
Once I had the basic structure intact, it was time for my first playtest. I try to make it a cardinal rule for my game design to playtest early and playtest often, so before I unleashed this on my students, I enlisted the help of my family.
You can think of this as my battle plan making first contact with the enemy. Check out my next post to see what failed!