Educational Game Design, Curriculum and Instruction Department, UIUC
Tools: Sketch, cardstock, game pieces
Shutdown is a 4 player cooperative-competitive board game about the U.S. government and politics. Each player has the special abilities of one of the 4 entities of government: the Executive branch, Judicial branch, Senate, and the House of Representatives. By playing through a series of bills, elections, and other events, players try to gain points based on their role and advance their political party’s agenda.
Shutdown is primarily targeted toward U.S. middle schoolers and high schoolers currently learning about the government in the classroom. Applicants for U.S. citizenship are also a potential target demographic.
Our principal learning goal is to teach players about the role of each branch in government and how they function as a cohesive unit. Through gameplay, players should learn:
- law-making procedures
- the delicate system of checks and balances
- political strategy
- how parties/agendas can create conflict within the decision-making process
On a higher level, Shutdown also teaches communication, conflict resolution, and resource management.
At the start of the game, role cards are shuffled and each player is randomly assigned a role—they represent either Executive, Judicial, House, or Senate roles of the government. They each have different abilities accordng to their role, as described on their card.
Each player is also randomly assigned a party, either Stars or Stripes. Each party has a list of political platforms it supports and opposes. We purposefully randomized these platforms in order to prevent the parties from resembling real political parties and keep the game neutral, while still addressing the current major political issues of today.
Every player tracks three metrics: Performance, Popularity, and Wealth. These points are tracked with player tokens on the scoreboard. Players gain +1 performance points by exercising their powers or voting in accordance with their party agenda during Bill and Election events. A player can also gain and lose points by playing personal cards and responding to events.
At the start of each round, an event card is played. An event can be a proposed bill, an upcoming election, or a national event (such as war or natural disaster). House and Senate vote on bills--if they disagree, they roll to determine their voting power. Executive can veto passed bills (at the cost of popularity points), and Judicial can review any bill. In elections, everyone votes and rolls a die to determine voting power. If the outcomes align with their party agenda, players gain +1 performance points.
After an event card is played, each player responds to the event by playing a red personal card. Personal cards allow a player to influence points for themselves or others. They are either Gains, which benefit the player themselves, or Attacks, which can be used to negatively impact another player’s points. A special personal card, Shutdown, allows the player to reassign the role cards of each player however they wish.
Players redraw personal cards and the rounds continue. The game ends once a player reaches maximum Performance (7). Then, players calculate the sum of their Performance, Popularity, and Wealth points, and the player with the largest sum is the winner.
We started by drafting the sequence of game events on a whiteboard, outlining general concepts such as expected gameplay and the round mechanics.
Then we created game materials, such as card events and content. Once content was finalized, we printed our cards and scoreboard on cardstock to bring our game to life. For the purposes of the prototype, we borrowed tokens and a die from other board games.
We observed 4 college students as they played through several rounds of the game. Based on player behavior and input, we came up with the following insights:
- Realistic event cards. Players commented that the cards mirrored real-world events and could get kids interested in politics.
- Some confusing game mechanics. The process for voting on a bill was somewhat confusing in the initial rounds, so the rules could be made clearer here.
- Plenty of strategy and conflict. Players discovered that things get chaotic when parties are constantly attacking one another, blocking bills, and shutting down the government.
- Long game. The game ended up taking about an hour, which is longer than we anticipated. Point mechanics and amount of cards need to be adjusted accordingly.
Overall, we received generally positive responses from our playtesters. Our playtesters responded well to the learning objectives of the game—they used their knowledge of American politics to make decisions and cooperate or attack (depending on the situation). Although this game is meant for a younger audience, it seems that the complexity scales well and it can be engaging even for those well-versed in American politics.
As a game designer on this project, there were some interesting challenges to overcome. For example, how could we eliminate political bias in our game design? It was tricky navigating that careful balance between crafting realistic game events and being too politically divisive. We also struggled with ensuring fairness in the game mechanics. Are there ways to make the game less frustrating for low-powered players?
With a few tweaks, I could see this game being successful in classroom settings. Overall, this was a really fun project and I enjoyed the opportunity work hands-on with print design and game elements.
Want to print and play this at home? Email me to request the full game materials!