Not A Nightmare, But A Really Odd Dream
Michael Laver, Playing Politics: The Nightmare Continues (Oxford University Press, 1997)
Mixing rules for about a dozen games, observations on parallels between game playing and real world politics, propaganda for the glories of Proportional Representation, and punk-leftist atmospherics, Playing Politics is a strange brew indeed. Imagine a feverish reverie in which Sid Sackson, Al Gore and Hunter Thompson merge into a single figure, and you will have about the right idea.
The games hold the book together and are the only reason for buying it. There are many better treatises on political behavior, and one who is so inclined can read Thompson without an intermediary. There are also better collections of original games, but this one, though uneven, is not bad. It is particularly noteworthy for filling the neglected niche for "strategic" (non-luck, non-Trivial Pursuit) party games. (I can't think of a previous good example of that genre except for Sid Sackson's "Haggle" in his long out-of-print classic A Gamut of Games.)
Several of the rules sets smell of classroom exercises and would sink any party quickly, but others look like they could be fun with adequate preparation. The most promising are "Agenda" (based on manipulating procedural rules to gain substantive ends; I "play-tested" a variant at a science fiction convention, and it went over quite well), "Coalition Poker" and "Killer Darts". "Candidate" is a possibility for a very casual evening, while a more serious crowd may like "Elections" and "Coalitions" (or their combined version, where winning requires skill at both gaining office and getting the most out of it). "Coalition Soccer" is an interesting concept but probably can't be played, if only due to the shortage of triangular fields. Even the not-really-playable efforts do, however, feature interesting ideas and mechanics that other designers may be able to put to practical use.
As for the didactic commentary that accompanies the games, readers who are thoroughly out of sympathy with Professor Laver's views can easily sequester and ignore them. What they don't ignore may perplex them. It is odd, for instance, that an author whose credits include a book on coalition government seems so puzzled by how coalitions work. He notes that, in his game on the topic, partners tend to split the "trough" more or less equally, because each, regardless of its relative quantitative power, is equally crucial to forming a majority. Real coalitions don't work that way, and Professor Laver offers only a lame attempt to explain the discrepancy. His fumbling undercuts his insistent and supercilious plugging for PR, of which coalitions are an inescapable corollary. What would one think of a right-wing free marketeer who had trouble with the principles of supply and demand?
Notwithstanding its oddness, this book is a worthwhile purchase for ardent gamers, for hosts and hostesses whose ambitions rise above Charades, for closet Reiner Knizias, and, let us not forget, for those who believe that Proportional Representation is the one true path to salvation.