Horizontal Mechanics, 12-Handed Monopoly, and Nothing Is Ever New
I’ve recently had the pleasure of playtesting 12-Handed Monopoly: A LARP of Capital, Revolution, and Blatant Theft, the second part of my ongoing effort to do 12 small, daft shows this year.
Admittedly, with 7 people (thanks all). But enough to see the concept working.
For those who haven’t read over the freely-available mechanics, it essentially creates characters around each playing piece in Monopoly, each with bonus rules.
For example, the cannon is part of the State, and can spend money to place policemen on the board. Doing so allows them to arrest people who land there. The cat is a dissident, who can steal people’s money. The top hat is the banker, and can take a bonus each time they pass Go (until there’s a crash).
Everyone needs money, and everyone needs Influence Tokens. These represent social clout - for example, the battleship can gain Influence Tokens by donating to the government, and spend it to start a war (during which it gets a cut of tax revenues).
Each player creates a character based on that set of mechanics - just a name and a quirk (e.g. Admiral Jellicoe Nelson, who gets very excited about war).
This worked really well. Everyone had something they wanted (money, Influence Tokens, power) and something they could offer (some form of power).
The wheelbarrow ‘donated’ a property to the government. Next round, the government happened to bring in a law that meant a percentage of each property bought was paid to the wheelbarrow as ‘maintenance costs’. On the other side of the table, the top hat was paying off the cat to get them to sit down and stop trying to steal the bank’s resources.
Partly, it worked as a dystopian simulation of the world. The players who were potential candidates to lead government ended up with a very cosy relationship, legislating to keep the other players in check.
The dissident players watched in (entertained) frustration as the forces of capital and state united against them.
It also worked in creating unexpected outcomes. The dissidents, objecting to a new law that made war lucrative for the government and battleship at their expense, declared a strike through a loophole in a recent law. The top hat, who was also frustrated by the same law benefiting other players at their expense, joined an emergency conference and bankrolled that strike.
Not only did I have fun, and I believe the playtesters did as well, but I think it did what I really wanted, which was to generate something I casually referred to as horizontal mechanics, and now think may be permanently referred to as such.
Horizontal mechanics (audience-to-audience) are the heart of many LARPs. Fateplay and Ars Amandi are both horizontal mechanics, just using the first two examples to spring to mind.
Most interactive work I know focuses on vertical mechanics - audiences do x to affect the world, with narrative beats created at minutes y, z, and n to give a sense of drama. Come Bargain brought out audience-to-audience relationships, and this did so even more.
The joys of horizontal mechanics are various, but most of all:
1. Every mechanic can (and should) feel different. The person playing the cat (thief) was fundamentally experiencing a different game to the cannon (police), who in turn was experiencing a different game to the train (regulator). It makes each experience special.
It also creates variety of experience. Watching the cat loom over the top hat (banker) until they were given money just to go away, while the cannon and train collaborated to tilt the board in their favour between regulation and state coercion, was like watching four different shows. In a world of read-write-talk shows (i.e. all tasks are bourgeois administration), this is excellent (while still not being my mecha-mechanic show).
Finally, no mechanic was essential. We didn’t have the journalist-dog, but the experience still worked.
2. Horizontal mechanics create unexpected outcomes. By putting authority in the hands of audience-participants, guests create stories.
Perhaps the most important moment of the playtest was where people sat, leaving the top hat next to two dissident players, and the battleship next to the government. Although both were capitalists, occasionally working together, above all both the top hat and battleship leant on the resources of their other neighbours.
Each time this LARP happens, I would expect to see people discovering new combinations of ‘if I work with this player, we can cause that to happen.’
3. Finally, it reduces the burden of running the show. As long as the tools given to player-guests are not all-powerful (e.g. can they block someone else’s fun?) or destroying a key component (e.g. are you asking them to manage a resource pool without physical tokens to track it?), then player-guests can handle things by themselves.
12 people, each with a tiny part of the overall machine, can have powerful emergent properties. Some can be designed to work well together (the battleship is incentivised to donate money to government players who need it; they are encouraged to give it Influence Tokens in exchange), while other collaborations will be discovered amid chaos, trust, and expectation (trust in guests is key; I’d advise new makers that while people warn you to be ready for disruptive guests, they are vanishingly rare).
Above all, a certain type of player-guest will enjoy finding ways to work with others. The experience is a social one: meet these strangers, and see how you can work with them. With the right (open) tools, extraordinary inventions can occur.
Regular readers will know that this is an aesthetic and ideological goal for most of my interactive work; we live in lonely times.
Suddenly, the actor-NPC archetype’s role as a moderator is emphasised, rather than a facilitator/character. What they’re there to do is ensure that nobody gets forced out of the experience.
There’s more to say on 12-Handed Monopoly. I’ve just revised it based on player feedback, especially focused on:
1. Be mindful of how mechanics pace the game for different players (e.g. if one player’s tools mostly relate to property, what do they do early in the game?)
2. Be mindful of how mechanics interrelate to create accidental power over other players (e.g. if one player is bringing in laws to try and remove another player, is that OK? Is it fun?)
3. Nothing is ever new. This is very much in a tradition of LARPs, and I would attribute much of my satisfaction with it to being the creation of something in a form new to me, rather than any substantial innovation.
But mostly: I had a lot of fun, saw some people create exciting things I hadn’t expected (a protection racket! A general strike!), and saw something there for future projects.
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