Moralityball, my experimental sport / social experiment, finally debuted at the 2012 DCGames Festival on September 1st. I wrote previously about playtesting the game, which gave a pretty good idea of how the game is played. I didn't settle on the "final" rules until the night before the festival, but I'm pleased to report that the game resulted in some very fun/allegorical gameplay!
The biggest challenge in finalizing the rules was choosing the game rewards. I needed to make players want to maximize their score without regard for how well the other players were doing, which turns out to be very tricky. I briefly considered giving out actual money, but I ended up settling for a system in which I hid the nature of the rewards: I gave out tickets to the winners and said that each ticket was redeemable for a Fabulous Prize! at the end of the game. (The prizes turned out to be candy.) I set up the rewards so that a team would get 2 tickets for finishing with 5 tennis balls and 1 ticket for every 3 balls after that.
I was a bit worried that we wouldn't have enough players. Turnout was pretty slim at the festival, and the game was designed for 10-20 people. Luckily, when we gathered everybody up, we ended up with a group of 22 eager players. The first two games went swimmingly, with most players engaging in just the sort of ruthless backstabbing that I had hoped for. A few interesting strategies came up: you'll notice in the first game that one player tries to form an ad hoc group "alliance" right away. In the second game, one team decided to sit out (under the assumption that the game was just a test of "how much of an asshole will you be to win"). This team later became the "police", attacking other players that they observed stealing. Another team explained their strategy to me afterwards: make an alliance with as many teams as possible, then immediately break them for profit. All good stuff.
For the third game, I announced to everyone that there were, in fact, enough balls for every team to win 2 tickets (which would be the most efficient outcome for the group). I also extended the round from 3 minutes to 5 minutes, to give them time to try to sort it out. Still, the players never quite organized themselves.
For the last game, I dumped an extra few balls into the starting pile, explaining that now there were more than enough tennis balls for everyone to win. I also shortened the game to 2 minutes. This time, the players tried to arrange a cooperative strategy: they would all walk, pick up their tennis balls, and stop when they had enough. Here was the real test of the game.
Their cooperative strategy lasted for about 20 seconds, at which point a player stealthily stole another's flag. After that, all bets were off. Despite having the chance to achieve a peaceful, mutually agreeable outcome, the selfishness of individuals caused all cooperation to collapse. Needless to say, I was immensely pleased.
Although the game went about as well as it could have, it still revealed a few flaws that I'd like to fix. For one, having the players rip off other players' flags only works if there's a designated offense and defense; if both players are going after each other at once, it ends up turning into a cross between a dance and a brawl. Belt flags work best when there's some sort of "safe zone" to return to. Second, the rewards ended up being a letdown for everybody involved. If I were to do this again, I think I'd just hand out dollar bills instead of tickets. It accentuates the extrinsic nature of the rewards, but it also makes the social experiment part of the game much more valid. As a fun, interesting, one-off festival game, I think it would work.
Even with the current version, though, the players seemed to have fun, and it spurred a lot of discussion. I'm plenty happy with that.