So, in Arcadia, characters have a social role. Each role has three conditions that, when triggered, give the character tokens that they can use in social conflicts to maybe get what they want. The lowest status characters start with three such tokens, the highest five. That’s not a lot of range for what was a very socially unequal world! So what’s going on?

Well, the higher status characters have a sneaky advantage. They can get more tokens more easily. They can act in their own interests, and still be rewarded for it. A lady, or especially a servant, must approach their interest somewhat sideways to not completely lose the chance to get tokens as they go. The fundamental privilege here is the privilege to advocate for yourself without being socially punished for it.

I tried a more direct approach at a certain point, with the token economy just being radically unfair. Not only was transparent unfairness disheartening to people who are opting to play a game, but it made the point less effectively. Instead of causing people to experience (a scaled-down and metaphorical version of) the social stratification of the age, it caused them to be told about the social stratification of the age.

I think the best game mechanics are often like this, a little sideways and almost a little incomplete. You, the game designer, require the player’s complicity in whatever points you’re making and questions you’re asking. You need to leave space for them to contribute, discover, explore, and, dare I say it, play.

It’s a hard thing for me to consistently spot, yet. I have a programmer’s drive to completeness and directness, which I must overcome when doing game design.