I’m a big fan of any game that goes above and beyond in delivering a message or truth while also providing its players with entertainment. Sadly a lot of games geared around educating their players do the first bit really well: playing a game and learning stuff. However they often fall down when it comes to the entainment part of Edutainment. Something which other mediums have perfected quite easily.
Edutainment games are also often entertainment products for children that are largely aimed at the parents and schools who end up buying them. Who then wonder why their 12 year olds are still playing Fortnite when they should instead be solving math problems with their new robot best friend A.B.A.C.U.S or some other fluffy nonsense.
For me edutainment done right should incite discussion and further exploration of a subject rather than being a one stop shop. It should challenge players to think differently and as a result learn by doing. Playing into the strength of games as a medium, the act of play.
This is where Dear Leader comes in.
Dear Leader is a Political-Role-Playing-Party-Game by Tim Hutchings with art design by Michael Jaecks. The concept of the game is beautifully simple: One of the players is Kim Jong-un the infamous dictator in charge of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. (A place with a government that is neither democratic or for the people) With the other players taking on the role of Kim Jong-un’s Advisors. “Helping” Kim solve the problems their government faces on a day to day basis.
A round roughly breaks down as follow:
- A Policy Card is read aloud.
- Then the Advisors each give their Leader a solution to the problem.
- Kim Jong-un, being Kim Jong-un then rejects all of these ideas and must then come up with their own, much better solution, that can in no way relate to any solution offered by an Advisor.
- After Kim’s latest crazy idea has been explained the Advisors then bend over backwards to congratulate their Leader on a job well done.
- Kim Jong-un then picks the Advisor who helped/entertained them the most this round, they take the played Policy Card and become the new Leader for the next round.
There is a dash of Cards Against Humanity and similar party games with a healthy dose of small scale roleplaying games like Fiasco. It also has the controlled fun of being evil that the Fascists get in Secret Hitler except here you get to talk about it a lot. It gets silly, fast. With many of the Policy Cards encouraging out of the box thinking to come up with solutions to the weird and wonderful problems they throw up. Satire at its best.
Those are the basics of the play part of the game. It is a strong foundation that allows the education aspect of Dear Leader to truly shine through via three simple additions to the core game concept.
Kim Jong-Un is able to dole out Demerits from a pile of black wooden discs as they see fit. Demerits count against players at the end of the game but they are fun to dole out or rescind. This leads to lots of negative scores that come from everyone who becomes Kim Jong-un going a bit mad with power.
Is an advisor being, too unhelpful? Give them a demerit. Too helpful? Give them a demerit. Looked at you the wrong way? Demerit.
You get the idea.
What makes these little wooden discs so potent as an educational tool is that they are a super clear demonstration of the idea of power corrupts.
Often used by players as a punchline to jokes and other players actions the Demerit is tool that shows the fickle nature of dictators. Anything can be seen as a wrong move in their eyes. So tread carefully but not too carefully because that might lead to you getting a demerit.
Do they change the shape of the game? Not really because Dear Leader like most party games isn’t about winning. It is about laughing at the situation and content of the game. However they are a pure distillation of the game’s core theme of Dictators = BAD.
The Leader’s Rule Is Absolute
At the start of every round the Advisors must clap for their Leader. From that point on Kim Jong-un has absolute power. Doling out Demerits is but one part of it. Kim Jong-un runs the round so they control who can speak and when. Who they chew out the most for their stupid ideas and who was the best Advisor who caught their attention.
As the game goes on you’ll find that the round order becomes very loose as Bootlicking becomes an everpresent part of the game rather than the way to end the round. The current Leader immediately criticizing everything their Advisors say with them all jumping ahead of turn order to offer their solutions to the problem of the day. Except it all ultimately means nothing.
The game places whoever is Kim Jong-un on a pedestal but the only thing they do is the exact same thing as their Advisors: come up with a solution for a problem. Except it is the idea that is always enacted.
I’ve also seen interesting scenarios were the Leader willfully copies an idea of an Advisor and servealy demerits anyone who points it out to them. Giving Kim Jong-un a weird power over the game were not even the system itself can contain the power, fear and control of the dictator. Afterall, how can a game stop our Dear Leader from doing what he wants?
This is perhaps the most traditional edutainment-like element of the game but it’s most powerful. After all the silliness has subsided, players are encouraged to read the back of the Policy Card that has just been the focus of the round. In a small print font almost hidden amongst the card backing is a not so fun fact about life in North Korea.
These snippets of information come in stark contrast to the events of the game itself. Giving players a brechtian moment of alienation. The sobering realisation amongst the laughter that people actually live in a country that is subject to the whims of a madman.
The end of each round prompts a quick discussion of how shocking the fact is or that there are cases of such violations of personal freedoms within western society. It is here that Dear Leader shows its truth strength. Educating its players by contrasting the absurd with cold hard reality. The colourful and slick visual design of the game also helps deliver its routine gut punches. You quickly forgot about reality for the five to ten minutes it takes to play a round. Then there it is again, another cold hard fact. Another truth. Another warning sign to look out for when your own democratic government might take the short and steep slide into a dictatorship.
Since owning the game I’ve been prompted to do more personal research on North Korea. Opening a rabbit hole of horror that highlights how broken the world can be thanks to political alliances, loopholes and North Korea doing a dangerously good job at suppressing the truth of what goes on within its borders.
The lesson to take from Dear Leader is that any mechanic can be charged to deliver facts and in this case political discourse. Serving as a truly interactive way to educate a player. Also that there are many untapped ways to play around with group dynamics within a tight system structure.
The thought provoking fun doesn’t end there though you can also get the, Presidentialapocalypse 2017 mini-game. Which is essentially the same game as Dear Leader but set in a fictionalised near-future where Donald Trump is President of the United States as civilisation collapses due to a series of absurd, shocking and all too real events. It is so 2019.
Here are a few thought exercises that my brain has been running through in the wake of playing Dear Leader. You too can now mull these over as you wait for your own copy of Dear Leader to arrive:
- What if grouped PvE content and loot drops in a game like Destiny were managed by a team leader who changes after each mission?
- How can you provide a required list of actions players must perform to advance the game but also give them freedom to enact them in their own order and/or method?
- What simple mechanics can you add to your game that have little impact on the systems you’ve created but really play into and enhance your game’s theme?
- What opportunities are there within your game to deliver both subtle and not so subtle educational content that is entertaining to consume?
Dear Leader can be purchased here.