Modular Game Design: EU v. Russia, Part I

For the past few weeks, the 15 students in my current events French class have been playing a game designed to model a struggle between Russia and the European Union to gain or retain influence over Europe’s outlying countries. What with Russia’s presence in the Ukraine since early 2014 and fears about Greece abandoning the euro and somehow aligning with Russia, the game provides a way for us to explore how fears and projections of spreading Russian influence might play out.

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The game’s design has taken on a modular feel that adds layers of complexity as students master concepts, and as I refine the model to give them an experience that brings them closer to the complexity and delicacy of international political posturing and negotiation. For me, this modular approach has made my job as a designer eminently manageable. I’ve been able to test the basic concept of the game without any advanced rules or mechanics, and decide based on my players’ experience and feedback what mechanics to introduce in order to gradually build the experience I want to provide for them.

For the players, most of whom are not familiar with games designed to realistically (though in a necessarily simplified way) model politics, the economy, or other real-world systems, the modular approach has allowed them to master concepts progressively rather than face a daunting rulebook full of ideas that are new to them. Once comfortable with the basic mechanic, they are ready and eager to add the next layer of complexity and adjust their strategies accordingly.

So how does this game work? Based on a game my partner, William, designed to help middle-school students understand the Cold War, it pits a Russia team against a European Union team and lets them bid for influence over countries like the Ukraine, Greece, and Estonia. The goal is to have the most victory points when all countries have been decided. The bare-bones version – module 1 – plays like this:

Russia begins with 110 resource points. The EU begins with 250 resource points.

For each of 10 countries (represented by cards in a shuffled stack), teams participate in a round of bidding up to ten resource points, followed by negotiation, followed by a second bidding round referred to as the escalation round. Whoever invests the most resources overall wins, and extends (or preserves) influence over that country. That team then adds to their victory point total the number of VPs represented by that country.

There are a few subtleties to keep in mind, however. Firstly, because the EU’s member states have many other concerns apart from the political leanings of the Ukraine, the EU team pays a penalty in VP for expending a lot of resources in a bid for influence. Secondly, if both teams are over-invested in any one country, they might cause war to break out there – which can have dire consequences, if that country belongs to NATO. And of course, the Ukraine matters more to Russia than it does to the EU, so when push comes to shove, team EU may just let it go. Although the EU is much better-funded than Russia, students gravitate toward Russia because it has so much less to worry about. They also enjoy role-playing the bravado they see in Russia’s international persona.

Once students mastered these basics, we began to add random events, all of which are based on either real or realistic international news stories. Students learned that being responsible for Greece could lead to a lot of headaches – something the real EU is dealing with right now.

We’re gearing up for a final run-through of the game before the end of the semester, for which we’ll have a map board to play on and colored counters to indicate the extent of each team’s influence. I’ll follow up with a second post about the latest version of the game and students’ reactions to the posh new setup.

Interested in using EU v. Russia in your classroom? Contact me to request a copy!

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