Today is the first Monday in October. That means it’s time for the U.S. Supreme Court to begin a new term, just as they have for centuries. It’s time for a handful of black-robed jurists to hear the most complex, significant, and thoroughly considered issues of the day, and then to render decisions that will impact the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
I’ve spent the last 10 years mulling over a strategy board game about the history of the U.S. Supreme Court, and I’ve finally finished the design. You may have seen my Designer Diary on here about the process and inspirations a couple months ago. Today, I want to share one of my personal favorite parts of First Monday in October, which is that each case in the game has a unique global effect on the game state or gameplay depending on the prevailing side. This idea emerged gradually over the course of many months of countless playtests.
The kernel for the idea started when it seemed that the outcome of some cases should impact the likelihood of subsequent cases turning out a certain way. This is of course a core part of the judicial system, generally known by its Latin name — stare decisis, which, to oversimplify, is the principle that precedent should guide outcomes so that the law is predictable for litigants.
In the game, this started with the idea that a victory in an earlier case by the party linked with Federalist ideals should make it more likely that a similarly aligned party should prevail in a subsequent case, and the same goes for the opposing Antifederalist party. I wanted the global effects to represent a change in the state of the nation’s laws in the game, which would impact all players equally, regardless of who advocated for each party in any given case. In fact, the global effects happen even for cases where no player was involved because they’re tied to the intrinsic case parties, not the players. The players can and will of course influence this by pushing the judicial philosophies in one direction or another based on their preferences for various case effects.
For example, if Korematsu pulls off an ahistorical upset and wins in the 1944 case that expanded executive power to establish internment camps during WWII, then the executive power philosophy track will be shifted toward the Antifederalist side, making it harder for Arizona to later prevail in the Miranda rights case or for Nixon to prevail in keeping his subpoenaed recordings privileged. The same thing happens with an early 1852 commerce clause case, which sets the tenor for whether Congress will have more expansive or more narrow authority to regulate interstate commerce throughout the game.
But then the idea really began to expand and take shape. I decided that rather than have a third deck of “Event” cards, which would have been separate from the Justices deck and the Cases deck, the game could instead fold a variety of events into the cases, which would simultaneously streamline gameplay and make it feel more thematic and interconnected. At first, I thought only a handful of special cases would have global effects, but playtester after playtester loved those cases when they came up, and eventually it just made sense to have a global effect on every case. Naturally some cases have smaller effects than others, but every case now has a unique effect.
During Era I, the effects are generally smaller because I don’t want to fundamentally alter the game in the first 30-40 minutes. If free speech rights are determined to be more expansive in the early Sedition Act cases, then players will find themselves receiving bonus influence or moving up in the Cloak Room, both of which represent their associations or think tanks having more latitude and power to impact the judiciary. On the other hand, if the Court upholds a narrow interpretation of the First Amendment, then all players may find themselves losing influence (which may benefit certain players that planned accordingly and don’t have any influence to lose). In a similar vein, if the seminal case of Maryland v. McCulloch determines that Congress has implied powers not specifically enumerated in the Constitution then players will find themselves with one fewer action in the subsequent round due to greater concentration of government power and less room for private actors to maneuver, but everyone gets an extra action if the federal government is hamstrung by an 1819 Maryland victory. Lastly, an important early Commerce Clause case regarding steamboat navigation determines whether or not all players will have an opportunity to engage in a form of trade (a.k.a. commerce), by swapping out one of their goal cards dealt at the start, which may obviously benefit some more than others.
The global effects start to amp up in Era II with a couple of my absolute favorites. The first is Myers v. USA, which determined whether the President could fire appointees without congressional consent even if their appointment was originally subject to the Senate’s consent. If the Executive Power (Article II) judicial philosophy track is tipped toward the Federalist side, then the President will have expansive powers to fire appointees at will, and in the game that means that the Chief Justice will be immediately retired. In real life, of course, the case had to do with political appointees like Cabinet positions rather than federal judges (who can only be removed through impeachment), but the parallel is close enough to feel thematic, and the case can really get players amped up to contend over the outcome. If the Antifederalist side prevails, then all aging markers are removed from the Chief Justice, so he or she will stick around for an extra long time. My other favorite global effect in Era II is for Hammer v. Dagenhart, which was an early 20th century commerce case that determined whether Congress could pass laws regulating child labor even if that labor occurred within a single state. Interestingly, this is one of a small handful of commerce cases that in real life resulted in a narrowing of congressional authority. In the game, if child labor can be federally regulated and limited, then all players are prohibited from doing any boosted actions for the entire next round (since they’ve had to stop working their child employees 80 hours per week). This can really disrupt the plans of certain players depending on the board state. On the other hand, if child labor cannot be regulated and is more abundant, then the next action of all players is boosted for free. As lead developer Jason Matthews has pointed out, the game is a bit cynical at its core.
When the game reaches Age III, the gloves come off and the global effects go full tilt. Then again, only a couple Age III global effects will generally ever trigger, and they’ll only briefly be in place before the game ends. That being said, Roe v. Wade can result in court packing, NY Times v. Sullivan and Lawrence v. Texas can significantly change how quickly Justices retire, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act case can potentially remove a Justice immediately from the game, and Nixon v. USA can permanently change the number of actions per round. But my favorite global effect of all, and one of the very first to be developed, is for Arizona v. Miranda. I think that many, if not most, people are vaguely familiar with Miranda rights, which require police officers to inform people being arrested of certain legal rights. This is a common trope in U.S. police television shows. In the game, if Arizona prevails and police officers are not required to inform people of their rights, then the wheels of justice move much more quickly with fewer procedural hurdles, and the game will immediately advance all cases along the Docket, deciding their outcome much faster than otherwise would have been the case. On the other hand, if Miranda prevails, then the wheels of justice are slowed, and all cases are remanded and therefore moved back on the Docket track. This is such a compelling case, and it can easily split players based on the state of the board.
I think what I love about the global effects is strangely enough related to my love of 1999 Knizia classic Ra. This may seem like a stretch, but in Ra, one player will find themselves with a couple pharaoh tiles, while another player has a few river tiles, and a third player has some different monuments. Once that happens, each new tile has a very different value or meaning to each player depending on how it gels with what they already have. In other words, the board state quickly develops so that each player’s incentives and motivations diverge, which creates a natural form of conflict or tension that feels interesting, without feeling too combative or punitive. I feel that I’ve lucked into a game mechanism in First Monday in October that captures that feeling, with a mere shadow of Knizia’s brilliance of course, but reminiscent nonetheless. I enjoy how players in First Monday in October are pulled in different directions by many different factors, including their goal cards, their influence on different Justices on the Bench, and how their influence is spread across the cases on the Docket at any given time. I expect that the interesting facets of the global effects of the cases may not be immediately apparent upon first blush when reading the rules, but I hope that the global effects emerge as a particularly fun and fascinating aspect of the game once people have a chance to see them in action.