One of the major reasons I got back into writing -no, really, stop laughing, I write. Sometimes. – was because I am interested in the ways Board and Video Games have been slowly pushing themselves to examine and deal with more and more challenging topics. In fact, the origins of “Acagameia” itself was from a discussion with a close friend about the possibility of ever representing the Holocaust in an engaging and informative way- a topic obviously close to my heart (if I were in the habit of linking to old editorials from other sites, the “close” and “heart” would link to my two part editorial on Holocaust portrayals in video games). The point here is that when a tabletop game like “Dog Eat Dog” comes along, my ears perk up and I begin to salivate.
“Dog Eat Dog” is a tabletop roleplaying game developed by Liam Liwanag Burke that veers towards the story-telling side of TRPGs, with the intention of players coming together to tell the story of a native population under threat from an occupation/colonial force. The rules are broad enough that they can be adapted to virtually any setting- a traditional 18th-19th century historical game, a sci-fi colony established on mars, the Peace Corp (a real example given in the rulebook). The sole requirement is that one side of players be the “Native Population” and another single player be “The Occupation.” Burke’s intention was to develop “a game of colonialism and its consequences.” This is hardly the first game to do so- Sid Meier’s Colonization, the Europa Universalis Series, even Empire: Total War make a point incorporate stories of colonization into their narratives. Yet where these latter games fall short, and where Dog Eat Dog shines, is in incorporating the colonized people’s perspectives into the game with the respect it deserves without diminishing the history itself. It does this through a few different things, including:
Colonialism is Written Into the Rules
One of the most striking things about Dog Eat Dog is the way in which one player, the occupation, immediately holds more power than all of the other players. While the Natives require consent in order to join one another in a scene, the Occupation forces can show up at their own whim. Once the Occupation is there, the Native players are required to seek permission -not from the other Native players in the scene, as is normal- but from the Occupation player in order to join. The Occupation is also able to simply decide that a Native is there, even if the player doesn’t want them to be. During narrative conflicts between players there are three stages: Negotiation, Chance, and Fiat. Effectively, they mean that players with a conflict can first negotiate a settlement. If that fails, they can escalate to chance, where they add up their traits and roll dice to see who gets to narrate the scene. BUT! If any player is dissatisfied with that result, they can escalate to Fiat, in which the Occupation can narrate the end of the conflict. Oh, and yes, the Occupation can escalate to Fiat even if they are party to the conflict and lose the Chance sequence. In other words, if the Occupation disagrees with a narration, they can challenge the person to a dice roll for the opportunity to narrate; if they lose the dice duel, then they can declare fiat and narrate anyway.
It’s more than this naked abuse of power, though. Following every scene, gameplay can move into a “Judgment” phase. In this case, the Occupation determines if any of the players (including themselves) broke rules established (mostly) by the players. If Native players break a rule, they must give up a token (basically life/influence) to the Occupation. If the Occupation breaks a rule, they lose a token to the black hole of non-existence (also known as the game box). Now, I mentioned earlier that most of the rules are established by the players. There’s one rule, the First Rule, that begins every game:
“The (Native People) are inferior to the (Occupation people).”
I am sure you can see how this instantly colors every interaction between Occupation and Native. By the very nature of Colonialism/Occupations, there is an inherent assumption that the Occupiers are superior to the Natives. This behavior is then replicated via the rule above- the Occupation player risks losing all their tokens by breaking the rule, which in turn encourages them to exert their superiority over the Natives and quickly punish any dissenting behavior. These actions (along with the token economy set up by the game mechanics) push Natives to conflict with the Occupation and undermines attempts at cohabitation. As Burke later states in his notes: “I started noticing that some people would do their best to be fair about being the Occupation…[but] it didn’t matter. The Natives still fought, and died, to prove that they weren’t inferior and to resist the Occupation’s lukewarm attempts to control them…colonization is still about believing in your superiority over someone else, and it’s incredibly difficult to build a functional relationship on that basis, even if both parties are trying as hard as they can…a bad situation doesn’t change how good people want to be – but wanting to be good doesn’t change a bad situation.”
Plays With Ambiguity
Dog Eat Dog is also great in the way it plays with rule ambiguity, a situation that doesn’t always work in most tabletop roleplaying games. Let’s take that first rule as an example: how are the Natives inferior to the Occupation? The rulebook leaves that question unanswered and, due to the constraints put in place by the first rule, forces players to confront it with their actions. A better example involves the selection of the Occupation player- for your first game with a group of friends, the Occupation is selected by choosing “the richest player.” Burke intentionally refuses to define “richest player” any further than that, explaining that its ambiguity was “…to make people talk about privilege and status even before the game begins…the vagueness means that people will bring their own perspective on wealth to the conversation, and perhaps find it necessary to reconcile their different understandings.”
While Dog Eat Dog is insanely interesting in the way it treats its subject matter, it is through this ambiguity that I think Dog Eat Dog makes its most substantial contribution to game development as a whole. For most games, especially the tabletop sort, ambiguity is something of a grave sin. Thousands are spent by companies publishing errata and rules clarifications with the intention of providing the clearest and most legible rules systems for players- yet what Dog Eat Dog accomplishes is something akin to a tactical ambiguity. It intentionally obscures how certain rules are established in an effort to elicit greater interpretation and discussion among players, and by tactically obscuring the definitions of certain concepts (in this case, “inferiority” and “richest”), the game opens up to provide a platform for discussing the real-life issues it is replicating. Brenda Brathwaite attempted much of the same thing in her infamous game “Train,” though based on interviews with her and papers written on the game itself, I would hesitate to suggest it accomplished its ambiguity as successfully as Dog Eat Dog did. I stand at the ready to be corrected, though! (If by any chance Brenda Brathwaite happens to stumble across this blog post, cough cough, cough cough. Big fan!)
If these aspects have caught your interest, you can pick up a copy of Dog Eat Dog from Burke’s own publishing site. And with that done, which Tabletop game/RPG would you like to see commented on next! We are taking suggestions! Anyone? Anyone?