Spreading fake news, bribing media outlets, and exploiting caste tensions are all tactics that Indian political parties have for long been accused of using to win elections. Now, even lay Indians are getting to try their chops at them—in a board game.
The Poll: The Great Indian Election Game simulates India’s national electoral process, warts and all. Between three and six individuals can play it, each as a party jockeying for influence in a set of parliamentary constituencies.
The board game has been developed by a small team backed by Seeking Modern Applications for Real Transformation (SMART), an NGO that runs a community radio station in the northern state of Haryana. Journalist Abeer Kapoor led the creation of the game, with assistance from researchers Anandya Bajaj and Vidita Priyadarshini.
Kapoor, who has covered several Indian assembly polls as a journalist, began formulating the idea of the game while reporting on the Karnataka election this past May. “I thought, what are the basic resources that political parties have?” he told Quartz. “They have money, they have feet on the ground, and then they have an agenda/ideology which they’re able to pitch forward.”
These three components all became key parts of The Poll.
At the start of the game, players must build the manifesto for their political parties by drawing “policy cards” from a large stack. Having a particular policy card in your hand allows you to make a specific campaign promise. For example, there are cards that indicate the ability to increase foreign investment, strengthen national borders, and advocate labourer rights.
The players must then make their case for the chosen policies and why they give them political influence. The constituencies are chosen from a stack of cards carrying information on their most pressing problems. If a majority of players agree that another’s manifesto promise (say, the ability to strengthen borders) can solve a problem (say, drug trafficking), that player gets to put little wooden cubes onto the board in order to signal influence—“feet on the ground”—in that constituency.
The game-makers sourced information for the policy cards, in part, by combing through manifestoes of actual Indian political parties—although the game is “politically agnostic,” so no mention of parties can be found anywhere in the finished product. Other content in the game came from research in sources such as official school textbooks, government websites, and newspaper headlines, among others.
Any influence staked out in the manifesto phase of the game, however, can be nullified by the next part of the game—the brutal “campaigning phase.” At this juncture, “the fickleness and strategy of your ideology really comes into play,” Kapoor said.
During campaigning, players spend money (they are all given the same value of wealth tokens at the start of the round) in order to play cards that either boost their own influence or detract from others’ influence. If you play a card that boosts yourself, it may be something conventional and legal like door-to-door campaigning or holding a rally, or illegal, like colluding with the mafia or using black money for campaigning.
Digital campaign tactics can also be used against opponents. There are cards that allow you to spread fake news to boost your influence, or to draw on the efforts of a “WhatsApp Uncle”—a common trope in India about people who are prolific sharers of misinformation and propaganda.
The most interesting part of the game, however, comes when players use campaign cards that damage other players’ influence—by, for example, levelling baseless corruption allegations. “At the heart of it, we wanted to get people to make negative decisions,” Kapoor said. “It’s like a Quentin Tarantino film. You watch enough of them and you’re desensitised to blood. You watch enough elections and you’re like yeah, he did that.”
Another thing players can do during the campaigning phase is appeal to voters using caste or religion. “You can mobilise the backward castes, you can mobilise the forward castes, you can do a cross-caste alliance,” Kapoor said. “There are a bunch of caste and religion cards to show that this is where elections take an interesting turn.”
Caste also comes up in wild cards that “change the election,” presenting scenarios such as an economic recession or the death of a prominent leader. One such card—that of a communal riot—requires that all other players use a caste-based card immediately after it.
Many of the “negative decisions” that players might make are, in fact, illegal—but, as in real life, it is difficult to penalise the wrongdoers. Each player can call on the Election Commission (EC) only once in a game, to nullify another player’s dirty move. Besides that, there is one “community” EC card that all other players must agree to use before employing it against a player’s move.
“The importance of the community EC lies in the fact that it is there where alliances truly start shining,” said Rajat Kumar, of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF)—a German foundation that is funding the game’s release. “You’ll have one person who’ll want to use the community EC, and then another one might say ‘nah, I don’t really want to screw that guy over.’ And then they’ll say, ‘okay I did that favour for you, now you have to back me up.’”
While The Poll has no formal system in place for players to form alliances with one another, the game-makers certainly expect, and encourage, that type of strategy. “Alliances form naturally in the game, because you have to argue, you have to campaign,” Kapoor said.
The Poll will be released in both English and Hindi. Kapoor also hopes to soon work on a version consisting of just cards—no game board, and fewer moving parts. This version would be ideal for players of lower socioeconomic strata, who might not be able to afford a bulkier board game.
The Poll will be priced between Rs700 and Rs800.
The game-makers have conducted play tests with a total of over 100 individuals over the past months, refining the rules and the design of the board.
FNF plans to support the printing of around 1,000 sets of The Poll by this January. The game-makers want the game to reach as many schools, colleges, and community spaces as possible, so that word of mouth can spread.
Ideally, they think, The Poll will have gained traction before India’s general election in 2019, expected to be held next spring. “We want people to be playing this game and then voting,” Kapoor said.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.