Our first entry into our Kickstarter Korner series for 2017 is an interview with a very interesting project called Founders. Designed by two Washington, D.C. Attorneys who met while in law school, their experience with several political campaigns has led them to design a game about the political process in Washington, including how laws are formed and what it takes to get those laws passed, including serious negotiation, promises made but never kept, keeping lobbyists happy and of course, political capital.
Grant: Tell us a little about yourselves. What has led you to developing a game on politics such as Founders?
Nick: Andrew and I are attorneys. We met in law school at the University of Michigan. We soon discovered we were both interested in the political process and had similar ideas about how it works, or doesn’t. Andrew and I both studied political science in college and worked on numerous political campaigns so we were very familiar with the subject.
Fast forward four years, we both found ourselves living in Washington, D.C., I was stationed here for the U.S. Navy and Andrew had just moved here to look for another legal job. Since graduating law school we had both come to love board games, especially euro games, although had only skimmed the surface of the vast and impressive tabletop community. Just as we started exploring the community more and more, the 2016 election was in full swing. We kept having conversations with friends and family from all over the political spectrum about how our political system – primarily Congress – seemed broken. Why wasn’t anything getting done? Why did our government have to come to a screeching halt anytime the two parties had a disagreement? Why wouldn’t individual legislators just do what was in the best interest of the country?
It was this last question that inspired our board game, Founders. In April, Andrew and I both decided it would be a fun and challenging project to design a politically themed board game together. Specifically, we wanted to focus on the legislative process –e.g. how laws are negotiated, voted on, and made. We thought a board game would be an ideal platform to recreate the basic incentives that our country’s legislators experience in their jobs. Mainly, the need to please their district’s voters so they can stay elected, the need to cater to deep pocketed lobbies and donors so they have enough cash to run their campaigns, politicians’ desire for power, and, sometimes as an afterthought, the desire to do what’s best for the nation as a whole.
In terms of mechanics, we wanted a theme-heavy game that included a lot of negotiation just like real-world politics. We love the bargaining and backroom-dealing aspect of analog gaming and thought the halls of Congress would be a perfect setting to draw that out. We have strived to make Founders an interactive, thematic, and fun game for political junkies and hobby gamers alike. We are also excited because this is one of the only games to deal with lawmaking that is grounded in reality and takes the process seriously.
Grant: What games do you like to play and what games have influenced you on your design?
Nick: The first euro game both Andrew and I came to love was Settlers of Catan (you might have heard of this one). I then discovered the Cities and Knights expansion which became a family tradition whenever my siblings and I were all together. It wasn’t until recently that we really expanded our board gaming horizons. We have loved the Pandemic games. Between Two Cities. Viticulture. Simple party games like Codenames as well. We have also come to love playing other designers’ prototypes. We are a part of a few DC based designers groups that meet a couple times a month to play test each other’s games.
We have been influenced by all the games we play, but there is no one game that specifically jumps out. We really enjoy the wheeling and dealing that goes on in euro games like Settlers. We have tried to take that to a whole new level in Founders. We like the cooperative aspects in games like Pandemic, which we have worked into our rules as well. But more importantly, most of our influence and inspiration has come from (1) playing Founders with friends who work in politics; and (2) local game designers who have helped us work the kinks out of our game. We have been working and playing a lot with Matthew O’Malley of Black Oak Games who designed Between Two Cities and more recently successfully funded Knot Dice on Kickstarter. He has been instrumental in tweaking our mechanics, helping us simplify where necessary, and introducing us to some great board games to learn about mechanics from. He has played Founders a handful of times, so has seen and helped us improve each iteration. He has been a great friend and mentor.
Grant: What is Founders about? What do you hope that players will get from the experience of playing the game?
Nick: In Founders, players serve as legislators in a modern Americana country. Legislators must negotiate and pass new laws to deal with national crises as they arise throughout the game. Players succeed in the game by harnessing their political capital, earning money for their campaigns, and preventing the country from doomsday. The game mixes cooperative and competitive play.
Our goal for Founders is twofold: first and foremost, we want a fun, challenging, and addicting game for hobbyists and laypeople alike. We make sure to playtest with both groups, and have gotten great feedback from each.
Our secondary goal is to help people better understand why our politicians act the way they do. Founders allows players to step into their world and experience the pushes and pulls that real world politicians face. We think it helps people realize that most politicians are not evil, they are merely acting rationally according to the incentives in place in our system. Too often we see people wringing their hands about how they feel their vote is meaningless or politicians don’t listen to them. We genuinely don’t think this is true. To stay elected politicians need votes and to get votes they need to keep their constituents happy. Politicians may sometimes ignore what’s in the best interest of the nation as a whole, but they certainly care about the people inside their districts, as their jobs depend on it. We hope, in some small way, Founders can help voters realize the true power they can have over politicians, if only they demanded more of them.
Grant: What mechanics were used in the design and why?
Nick: Below is an explanation of the mechanics and basic gameplay of our most recent version of Founders. We are still undergoing extensive playtesting, so these may be tweaked before we launch our Kickstarter.
There are four basic mechanics in Founders: 1) passing laws; 2) wagering political capital; 3) the country’s doomsday clock; and 4) elections.
i. Passing Laws – Founders’ main assets are national issue cards and bill cards. Each bill card represents a unique piece of legislation – e.g. universal health care, emergency aid – that can help solve a national issue that arises throughout the game – e.g. healthcare crises, approaching hurricane.
Every player is assigned their district at the beginning of the game. Each district has a specific political leaning – e.g. libertarian, liberal, conservative – and a specific set of bills that voters in their district want passed. Bills are split into two categories: major legislation (e.g. universal healthcare) and amendments which can be added on to any major legislation (e.g. religious exemption, or earmark). During gameplay, national issues are flipped over and sorted into four committees (e.g. health and education committee, foreign relations, etc). Players sit on various committees throughout the game by placing player tokens on the board. Members of each committee assemble bill packages to solve each issue assigned to their committee. Each player uses their own major legislation as well as amendments from other players to form bill packages. This encourages (almost requires) lots of negotiation and deal making. When ready, committee members vote to move the bill package out of committee to the Floor (more negotiation).
Later in the game, players get the ability to control committees which gives them special powers to craft legislation to their liking. Once on the Floor, there is a period of “debate” when all players may add amendments to the bill package. When ready, the player who put the bill package together calls a vote on the bill during their turn. Each bill card included in the bill package tells all players whether their voters want it passed or rejected (players collect political capital for voting how their voters want), whether their lobby wants it passed/rejected (players collect money for voting how their lobbies want), and how much the legislation costs the Treasury.
We are really excited about this new Committee/Floor mechanic. It adds a new layer of strategy and negotiating tactics. We are still tweaking this mechanic as it was a recent change, but the play tests have shown promising results so far.
ii. Wagering Political Capital – On the final Floor vote, in addition to voting to pass or reject the legislation, players also decide whether to bet political capital on achieving their desired vote result. They do so by hiding political capital tokens in their fist before revealing their vote. There is a reward for winning the wager but the cost is all wagered political capital is forfeited.
Here’s the catch: if more than 2 players wager political capital, no one wins. If just 1 or 2 wager political capital, then the top wagerer moves forward 3 spaces and the second wagerer moves forward 1 space. If both wager the same amount, then both players move forward 2 spaces. This has turned out to be a really fun game theory mechanic. It basically recreates a version of the prisoner’s dilemma.
iii. Doomsday Clock – In addition to catering to their voters and lobbies and trying to harness their political capital on votes, players must collectively keep their country from reaching doomsday. The Doomsday Clock moves around the same score track as the players, inching closer and closer to doomsday. The Doomsday Clock moves forward in two instances: (1) Each bill has an associated cost that must be paid for with revenue bills (e.g. taxes). If the final bill package that is passed doesn’t include enough revenue, then the nation must borrow the money which advances the Doomsday Clock.
And (2) the clock moves forward if there are too many unsolved issues after each round. If the Doomsday Clock reaches the end of the score track before any player does, the game ends and scoring is reversed. The player who was in last place wins as they are chosen to lead the secession movement. The positioning of the Doomsday Clock also matters for elections (see below).
iv. Elections – After each time everyone has taken a turn, the game stops for an election. Players must spend money on their campaign to win their election. If a player is behind the Doomsday Clock on the score track, they must pay $2 for every space they are behind. If a player is ahead of the clock, they must pay $1 per space they are ahead. If a player can’t afford to pay enough, they lose their election. Players who win get to place 1 additional player token into a committee helping them control a certain committee.
This will give them more power to craft legislation to their liking. Players who lose do not get an additional player token, but do get to move their current tokens around at no cost as a catch-up mechanic.
Grant: How have you created a theme for the game and how have you reinforced that theme in the game play itself?
Nick: Founders is a heavily thematic game. It takes place in a modern Americana country. We reinforce this theme in multiple ways throughout the gameplay:
● The board will be designed to look like a physical legislature, with an illustration of the legislature floor and the various committee rooms. This will make players feel like they are actually in a building like our nation’s Capitol building.
● Players take on the role of different types of voters, which are based on the current political landscape. Descriptions of these voters will help players get into their mindset and start to role play – e.g. players assigned the libertarian card start to think and negotiate like a libertarian.
● The two types of currency are political capital and money, which is what politicians in the real world use to gain power and achieve results.
● The bill making and voting process is very similar (albeit simplified) to how our Congress works, as well as other legislatures around the World.
● The actual bill and amendment cards are substantively modeled after current legislation being debated – e.g. police body cameras, right to own firearms, universal healthcare.
● There are very loose restrictions on negotiations, so players can get creative and come up with all sorts of methods to get the results they want, similar to how real life politicians operate.
Grant: How do voter cards work and what are the different types? Can you provide some pictures of the various cards?
Nick: Each player represents their district, which is comprised of a unique set of voters. There are six types of voters in Founders: communitarians (think Bernie Sanders), labor voters (think Tony Blair), bourgeois voters (think Michael Bloomberg), libertarians (think Ron Paul), traditionalists (think Mitt Romney), and nationalists (think Donald Trump).
Each voter type will want certain legislation to pass and certain legislation to be rejected, as indicated on the bill cards.
Grant: What are lobby cards and how do they work? How do players obtain them? What are the dangers in using the lobby cards? Can you provide some pictures of the various cards?
Nick: There are ten lobbies in the game, which represent powerful special interests that try to influence how legislators vote. Players draw lobby cards at the beginning and then can spend an action during their turn to draw more. Each player may be supported by a max of 2 lobby cards. Every bill and amendment indicates which lobbies support or disfavor them. Players receive $1 for voting in line with their lobby, and lose $1 for voting against their lobby. Players increase their lobby haul if they are a committee member/chair that relates to the lobby – eg foreign relations committee and the defense industry lobby.
We love the lobby element of Founders because players often have to decide between siding with what their voters want or what their lobby wants.
Here is a an example of a lobby card (just ignore the #2 in there red banner, it’s from our last version).
Grant: Talk a little bit more about the Doomsday Clock. Why did you add this element to the game? How does it affect the player’s strategies?
Nick: The Doomsday Clock tracks the country’s health. The more in debt the country gets and the more issues that go unresolved, the closer the clock gets to the end of the score track (prematurely ending the game). The worse off the country is, the harder it is for players to be reelected.
We included this mechanic because it adds a cooperative element forcing players to work together to solve issues and pay for legislation. We also wanted this element because it illustrates how the country’s health is not always the top priority for legislators (players often choose to advance the clock instead of sacrificing political capital/money). It’s fun to watch how players don’t really care about the country’s health at first, but then once it starts getting close to the end, all of a sudden some players are more willing to make personal sacrifices.
Grant: What is the sequence of play?
Nick: The main sequence of play consists of each player assembling a bill package over a number of turns to resolve a national issue and then calling a vote on that package when they think it has enough support to pass. Each player may be assembling only one bill package at a time. The game continues until a player or the Doomsday Clock reaches the end of the score track.
At the beginning of the game, players place 2 player tokens into 2 committees. There will be multiple players in some/all committees. Next, an issue card is turned over in each committee meaning it is now a pending issue the nation must resolve. Finally, players draw a hand of 5 bill cards from their bill deck to start the game. On their turn, each player may take up to 4 actions.
Basic actions include:
● Play a bill card from your hand to attempt to resolve a pending issue in one of your committees;
● Negotiate someone else adding an amendment to your bill package while it’s still in committee;
● Call a committee vote on your bill package to approve moving it to the Floor;
● Add one of your amendments to another player’s bill package on the Floor;
● Remove an amendment from your bill package;
● Call a vote on your bill package once it’s been on the Floor for at least one round.
Additional actions include:
● Move to a new committee;
● Trade in your bill cards if you don’t like what you have in your hand;
● Add a revenue card to pay for your bill package (you must first move to the Ways and Means committee to access revenue cards);
● Change the rules for floor debate for your bill (e.g. how long bill has to sit on Floor before it can receive a vote and how many amendments may be added by other players) before moving the bill to Floor (you must move to the Rules Committee);
● Draw a new lobby card;
● Committee chairs have special powers depending on what committee they chair (e.g. can add/remove amendments to another player’s bill in their committee, can delay votes, etc).
Grant: What are political capital tokens and how do they work? How are they earned?
Nick: Political capital is earned when players vote in line with their voters or successfully pass legislation. Players start with 2 political capital tokens at the beginning of the game and after each election. Accumulating political capital isn’t enough of course. It must be spent to be useful. Earned political capital is used to wager on Floor votes to move along the score track. Political capital, as well as almost anything in Founders, can also be used to get other players to do things you want.
Here is a photo of some political capital tokens below the issue cards:
Grant: From your earlier description of the game it appears that it is negotiation heavy. How does negotiation work and how is it handled?
Nick: Negotiation is pretty free flowing in Founders. Players will negotiate with other players to assemble the most advantageous bill package, to get their vote on a bill package, to prevent them from doing an action that would harm them, to get other players to sacrifice for the good of the country, or to convince other players not to wager political capital on a vote (remember, if more than 2 players on your side wager, no one moves forward). Pretty much everything is open to negotiation.
Negotiation in Founders may include bribery as well as dishonesty (e.g. you don’t have to follow through on what you said you would do). We have tried to put as little structure as possible around this component of the game, and so far it has gone great in play tests. It’s definitely the part of the game that our play testers say they like the most.
Grant: How has the game changed from advice from players as well as from other designers?
Nick: Our game has changed dramatically since the first play test. We started off by getting advice from friends, many of whom work for Congress. This helped us make the game more realistic to the legislative process. We also played with international friends, to make sure our game would be accessible to an international audience.
After play testing for a few months with friends and colleagues, we took our game to Washingcon. There we played with hobby gamers, and met Matthew O’Malley. He invited us to play with a group of local Washington, D.C. game designers. We took our game to one of their retreats where it was played by 10+ designers, and have played with Matthew multiple times so he can help us make changes to streamline the game. We have also play tested it at a local game store to get more feedback from our most likely customers.
Some of the major help we have received from Matthew and other designers is advice to focus on the core of what makes our game fun: the law-making component. We have taken out a number of mechanics to simplify and focus the game. We have applied the feedback that the game should make intuitive sense, meaning when someone sits down to play, the rules follow what a layperson would expect.
Grant: Talk about the components. What is the main board like? How do players use that board? What information is contained on cards? Are there player aids?
Nick: The board consists of a Legislature Floor and Committees. We are in the process of redesigning the board to incorporate the committees mechanic we have added and to make it look more thematic. In the meantime, we have been using a simple design to play-test with.
We have a reference sheet we provide to all players to inform them of the possible actions they may take during their turn, as well as some reminders about how some of the mechanics work.
Here are pictures of the latest bill cards. You can see the voter icons (in color) and lobby icons (black and white).
Here are issue cards showing the issue and the committee it is assigned to:
Here are some sample amendments:
Grant: What type of money are you planning on using?
Nick: Back when we were just starting out we used paper money we’d cannibalized from another board game and thought that was fine. As we got further along we noticed people were telling us that players hate paper money. Now we are using cardboard coins for money with $1 and $5 denominations. We are considering offering a deluxe version as well, for players who prefer metal/clay coins.
Grant: Good call with using cardboard or metal coins. Paper money is the worst as it doesn’t wear well and also is difficult to handle. You showed us some examples of issue cards earlier. Can you share with us how they are used in the game?
Nick: There are 24 issue cards, 6 for each committee. 1 issue is flipped over in each committee at the start of the game. If an issue is picked up by a player, a new issue is flipped over in that committee. After each round (every player has taken a turn), an additional issue is flipped over (so there may be more than 1 pending issue in a committee at that point). Issues remain flipped over until there is a bill passed to resolve it. Every player has a bill to resolve every issue that comes up during the game.
Grant: What is the timeline for the release of the game? Have you decided about how you are going to do it, either Kickstarter or a publisher? What concerns do you have about that process?
Nick: We’re still considering a publisher, as we’ve had some interest expressed already. But we are leaning more towards Kickstarter as of now. The publisher is alluring because of their expertise and resources. But we have strong ideas about this game and what we want to get out of it and there is that worry that going with a publisher would compromise our vision. The concerns are that we’re both attorneys and not businesspeople. The more we look into the process the more we realize that having a good product isn’t enough, you need to have a good business plan.
Luckily we have friends and family and now designer friends who either have business experience or have done the Kickstarter thing before. They’ve been so incredibly helpful so far and we know that with their continued assistance we have a much better shot at success.
Grant: If you go the Kickstarter route, what is your funding target? What are your proposed backer awards?
Nick: We’ve got a tough choice to make there, per the advice of several friends that have gone the Kickstarter route and succeeded. The general advice seems to be to set your funding level low but then go for a higher target to lower manufacturing costs. The ideal target for us would be to raise enough via Kickstarter so we can make 5,000 copies. Thus, we are shooting to raise about $30,000. However, we will likely set the goal lower, as we have been advised that hitting your goal quickly is huge.
In terms of backer awards, obviously backers hitting a certain mark will receive a copy of the game. We’re mulling over global shipping options, and the father of a dear friend of ours has been an amazing help in understanding that world. Our stretch goals are premium components. So far we’ve priced our game with manufacturers for the cardboard/chipboard level stuff for everything. But better cards, maybe metal/clay tokens, are all things we’re considering for the Kickstarter.
Christopher Badell from GreaterThanGames also had a fantastic suggestion about donating a copy to schools. We’d like to make that a stretch goal too. Backers could submit the name of a school to donate a copy to and as we hit stretch goal markers we’d donate an increasing number of copies to schools randomly chosen from that list.
● We want to give a shout out to Kelly Kusumoto who did some great graphic design for our early prototype: http://kellykusumoto.com/ We commissioned her to do some basic design for us for play-testing and shopping the game around. We will likely work with an additional artist to fill out the art in the game once we have finalized our launch plans.
● We are working on designing the game so there can be a shorter simpler version of the rules for players to try the first time they play Founders or if they want a shorter game. This set of rules would basically remove the committees and actions elements. Players would negotiate to assemble a bill package on their turn and then call a vote at the end of their turn to see if the bill passes.
Thanks for the time Nick and I appreciate your lengthy responses (which in hindsight I should have expected coming from Attorneys!) as they definitely give us a good picture of what the game is about and what your vision for it is. If you are interested in Founders, please check out their website at: http://foundersboardgame.com/