Unless you are living under a very big and sound-proofed rock, then you realize this is a Presidential Election year in the United States. It is a challenge to escape political commentary in pretty much any forum at the moment. Even I devoted some space to a few political tangents in a recent article on Pokémon: GO. So when I was scrolling through Twitter a few weeks ago and saw a link to a new game titled, Galactic Debate, I was immediately intrigued. The idea of having players debate imaginary issues as candidates from different alien races seemed like a perfectly-timed idea. I reached out to the creative team behind the game, and Andrew Nerger and Jeff Chin were kind enough to participate in an interview. Below, we discuss the concept of Galactic Debate, how the game was designed, and how real-life political tensions and squabbles could bleed into gameplay.
Thank you for sharing some time with me to talk about your new game, Galactic Debate. I first became aware of the game’s Kickstarter campaign through Twitter, and the premise immediately grabbed my attention. What were your sources of inspiration for Galactic Debate?
Andrew: Jeff and I have always enjoyed playing improve games and having heated late-night debates on everything under the sun, so the idea developed pretty naturally. The concept of debating fictional issues really intrigued us, and soon, we began to study storytelling games and figuring out what worked well mechanically and where we thought we could make changes to support a game we would really want to play.
I think almost everyone enjoys arguing, but nobody wants to get into a confrontation with friends or family. When debating, players are actually taking on the role of Galactic Candidates like General Mindu of the proud warrior race, so feelings aren’t hurt when players try to debase one another. Everyone realizes they’re playing a role.
I certainly love my dice – though I’ve been trying to increase my improvisational skills of late. One of the things I wanted to ask about was about the potential for confrontation through gameplay. You already mentioned that above, so let’s dive in!
We are living in a highly-charged, political time right now; it’s an election year, after all. While players are taking on a role of a Galactic Candidate, I imagine it’s possible (if not likely) for real-life values and passions to bleed into the game. For instance, one of the possible debate questions is, “Should we ban hunting the Monstrous Bug People for sport?” I could see this going in a personal direction as the player’s beliefs about human rights, race relations, and xenophobia get incorporated into the response. I find the dynamics of these possibilities fascinating!
What have you noticed so far in your playtest experiences in this regard?
Andrew: So far (and maybe luckily), we haven’t seen any heated debates where political ideals cross-over into the game. The goofy issues tend to encourage goofy debates. I think a component that keeps the game from getting personal are the Vote cards. They have two sides: PRO and CON. Players are encouraged to use these to vote for the candidate that best represents their interests or likes, which are found on the bottom of the Vote cards. For instance, Humans enjoy entertainment and free stuff. In playtests, players have loved getting into the mindset of their race. As an example, instead of worrying about serious issues like the economic drawbacks of giving every citizen an impractically large mech suits; players are more interested in how a given stance benefits their people, in other words, Humans would probably be PRO mech suit.
To your point about connecting to current day politics, what I’ve witnessed is that the game really helps break down political debates. After playing, I watched some primary debates and started to see each candidate’s tactic when dealing with an issue. I saw candidates avoiding the questions, blaming other candidates, and intentionally pandering to a given demographic. In all those instances I could think back to a time in Galactic Debate where a given player did the exact same thing! It was a really eye-opening experience for me. No matter how ridiculous or serious an argument is, there are key debating principals that can help you win people over.
It’s good to hear that your playtests haven’t resulted in broken friendships or bloodshed! I know of a few friends that would take this game quite seriously and would debate – on principal – to the bitter end. Then again, one of my close friends was a marketing major that once made a classmate cry in during a mock debate in a college class, so maybe I’m running with the wrong crowd!
It sounds like the process of playing and improvising “goofy debates” is the key purpose of the game; however, I wonder how a player wins the debate. For example, are there points for common debate scoring such as delivery, logic, and persuasiveness? How is a winner decided in Galactic Debate, and how are the non-debating players incorporated throughout the game?
Andrew: To determine the winner, the non-debaters take on the role of the populations of various species in the galaxy (Androids, Space Whales, etc.) and vote on their behalf. Voting is entirely subjective. You can vote for the player that better pandered to your race’s needs (i.e. the Humans like free stuff and entertainment) or you can vote for whoever gave the more intelligent or even funnier response. Whichever candidate receives more votes receives one point.
Sounds like voting is straightforward and allows the players to decide how they want to judge the two parties debating. How did you create the various races?
Andrew: Most of the races come from sci-fi tropes, like Androids and the Proud Warrior Race, which is a parody of aliens like Klingons. Also we tried to pick races that would view topics from very different perspectives, making it tricky for debaters to appeal to all of them at once. For example, if you’re playing as the Space Whales you will tend to vote for peace, but the Brain Sucking Parasites enjoy chaos and world domination.
The debate issues have a fun Mad-Libs or Cards Against Humanity appeal in terms of their randomness. What led you to that type of design?
Andrew: The randomized pairing of Issue and Matter cards allows the game to have over 1500 combinations of topics to debate. So the game is very replayable while having just 108 cards.
Peaceful Space Whales and chaotic Brain Sucking Parasites? Is that a metaphor for this year’s election?
Jeff: Hah! We definitely included many political parodies in the game, especially on the Issue cards. Examples: “Building a forcefield around the galaxy and making (insert race here) pay for it” and “(insert race here) exiting the galactic union.”
That’s great, the forcefield example is too on point; extending those metaphors to that degree strangely makes the real-life ideas being offered sound even more ridiculous. The game has blown past it’s initial goal on Kickstarter. With just hours remaining before it closes, how has this campaign been different from your first Kickstarter experience with Road to Infamy?
Jeff: We’ve learned a lot from our first Kickstarter experience. This time around our reward levels are more streamlined, and the stretch goals are evenly spread and have more meaningful upgrades. Oddly, we did less pre-marketing for this campaign yet we seem to be grabbing more Kickstarter browsers. Also, we planned the campaign to have Gen Con fall during our final week, and I think that’s giving us a big boost to the finish line.
What’s been your favorite Issue and Matter combination throughout the play-testing sessions or other moments that really stood out in terms of demonstrating what Galactic Debate is capable of being for players?
Jeff: I always think it’s fun and challenging to be forced to argue the seemingly nonsensical Issues. Once I had to debate why we should eradicate my own race, the Monstrous Bug People. I argued that in order to breed a new generation, the older generation must first die off to make room on our crowded planet, but modern technology has been keeping them alive far too long. So I requested help from the war-mongering Proud Warrior Race to hunt down my own people.
And of course there’s always the silly Matter cards like “space suit butt flaps” and “inappropriate holodeck simulations” that always end in hilarious debates regardless of the Issue its paired with!
I imagine being in the throes of a Presidential Election year is also helpful. Whatever the overlap is between gaming enthusiasts and political junkies, it’s probably strongest during THIS election while Gen Con is going on! What type of feedback did you receive while attending Gen Con?
Jeff: We had some great feedback from the Gen Con playtesters. It was great to see groups of complete strangers able to pick up the game, get into character, and laugh and have a good time with it. Based on their feedback, we’ve simplified the phrasing on some of the longer cards, and also upgraded the game to include tokens that will make scoring easier.
The game really seems like it forces the players to improvise and make things up as it goes along. It seems like the type of game that would be fun to watch – even if you’re not playing as a voter. Another game that comes to mind is the World Wide Wrestling RPG, where players gather to “perform” as wrestlers and announcers in a broadcast wrestling television show. The system provides hilarious moments, and it can be fun to watch even if you’re not playing. What thoughts do you have about posting actual play videos or mock debates going forward?
For example, I’d play good money to watch folks like Stephen Colbert debate Jon Oliver using the rules of the game with other celebs serving as judges! Can we set up a separate Kickstarter to make that happen?!
Jeff: We filmed Chicago comedians Billy Parker and Mandy Levy improvising some of the issues. Billy and Mandy run a hilarious drunken spelling bee event in the city called the Slurring Bee, and Billy recently appeared as a storytelling finalist on The Moth.
And sure, If you’ve got John Oliver’s contact info I’d be happy to set that up!