What did I want to achieve?
I had two things in mind for Inner Circle
- a push your luck bidding game
- Some light guidance/prompts for story elements to include in plans
In my vision for the game, the inner circle (the players) are going to present their despicable leader with their plans for the week. Some combination of military victory, financial benefit, removal of annoying people and love and affection.
Of course, only one plan is good enough to take forward… and if your plan isn’t the one which is chosen it is going to cost you credibility with the boss. After all, why would he want someone around who can’t come up with a good plan for him (or her)? This is why I want push your luck bidding to be part of the game.
When all your credibility has gone, then your character is for the chop, metaphorically or literally, depending upon the scenario which you are playing.
A simplified card game
Most people are familiar with the game which is known variously around the world as Pontoon, Blackjack or twenty-one. These can have complex rules with lots of finesse around bidding, counting cards etc. I’m going to use the simplest of the underlying mechanics to support Inner Circle.
There is no banker, the players are competing against each other to achieve the highest score for the turn.
Each player is dealt two cards face down. The aim is to get a score as close to 21 as possible. The player can look at the cards and decide how much risk they want to take. Each player takes a turn to describe their plan, based on the cards which they have.
Then you have a series of turns around the table where each player decides whether to stick with their plan or request an additional card to complicate their plan with a new component.
If an additional card takes your total score over 21, then you have gone bust and your plan goes horribly wrong. Describe how it goes horribly wrong!
Once everyone has decided to stick, the cards are revealed and the highest score wins the round. Everyone else loses credibility.
Where is the story part?
In this game, the suit of cards informs the type of plan which the player has to come up with.
If you have a club, then your plan has to include some kind of military action. Despicable leaders love military action because it makes them feel strong, it makes them feel that that are accomplishing something. So the plan could involve a raid, gunboat diplomacy, brinksmanship, or any other kind of military engagement.
If you have a diamond then your plan has to include some financial benefit. Despicable leaders love money, jewellery, possessions, land, and artworks. They might treat wealth as a score in itself, or as a means to an end, but it is always appreciated.
If you have a spade then your plan is about removing an annoying person. You might be planning an assassination or an exile, a kidnapping or a dramatic fall from grace. The likely form of removal is guided by the scenario you are playing in. Every despicable leader has subordinates or competitors who are burrs in the flesh that they would like to see gone.
If you have a heart then your plan is about affection. Despicable leaders are a narcissistic lot, and they want adulation. This might be in the form of a PR campaign to boost the leaders popularity, or it might be a case of providing for their carnal satisfaction.
Of course, since you have at least two cards, you will probably have to come up with a plan which incorporates at least two of these elements, which might prove challenging. Spade and Heart anyone?
A scoring mechanism
I have spent quite a while going back and forth testing different scoring mechanisms. At the start I had players accumulating demerits as they lost, and going ‘out’ when they reached a particular total. Mechanically it worked OK, but it felt really weird and didn’t match the vibe that I was going for.
Eventually I landed on the current mechanics - you start with a pool of credibility and each time you lose a turn, you lose credibility. When your credibility drops to zero you are out of the game.
Choosing the starting credibility level lets you adjust the length of the game.
Tangible, visible counters are good to use so that everyone can see who has the most credibility at any one point. Poker chips are a thematically good choice, but sweets are a nice option because you can eat them as a consolation prize as your credibility ebbs away.
Two tweaks that I ought to mention - going bust costs you extra credibility, so you might want to be careful how far you push your luck! But fortune favours the bold, and if you win a round with 21 exactly, then you gain an extra point of credibility. Go you, you crafty dog!
The unseen despicable leader
During the game the players will address their leader with whatever honourifics they deem appropriate - but the despicable leader is always off screen. Nobody plays them, or responds as them. This removes the necessity for anyone to play someone distasteful, and by minimising the ‘on-screen’ role for the leader we avoid glorifying horrible people and giving them a voice in the game.