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Dog Eat Dog

Dog Eat Dog is a hard game to categorise, I would say it is a narrative story game about cultural domination, oppression and collaboration. The author created it to explore the occupation of the Pacific by imperial powers (particularly America's interactions with Hawaii, the Philippines and Japan) and the game delivers on that ambition really well.

So let's start with a description of the basic structure of the game. One player will take the role of the Occupation and the others will be the Natives. The Occupation is all-powerful and rules all aspects of the game. The Natives are the people who lives have been taken over. They share no ties to the Occupation except that they are ruled by it.

This abstract structure means the game mechanics can be applied to a lot of situations and in practice the broad, abstract terms will soon take on a more particular meaning.

For our first game we chose to play a near future Cyberpunky game where there would be enough fictional distance to not have to worry about things but near enough to the real world to not have to normalise our expectations.

The rough sketch of the setting was that a tropical island, notorious for drug production and smuggling has been taken over by an international security force.

The players then define more concrete aspects of the setting by passing round a card on which the defining properties of the Occupation are described. Then another card goes round describing the society of the Natives.

These short sentence descriptions ultimately form part of the dice building mechanism later which some players felt was unfair but I enjoyed the fact that later in the game we were bound by how we initially saw the two sides, it encouraged creative deep diving into the ideas.

I certainly think it would be disappointing if people were angling to create properties that were easy to leverage for dice later.

With the properties done the Natives each create a character: which essentially involves a name, a short description and a defining trait that sets the character apart from the other natives. Again this trait is used in the dice building mechanism, so it really should be something that interests the player, not a powergame or gonzo element.

Then comes the interesting part, you create the Rules that will define the relationship between the Natives and the Occupation. The first rule is always that the Natives are inferior to the Occupation.

I think it is at this point that some potential players are going to freak out. The first rule is that resistance to the Occupation will ultimately always end up in failure and death for the Natives. A lot of games rely on the concept of the players being the heroic underdogs but Dog eat dog really is grounded in reality here and the Americans are not going to get kicked out of post-war Japan.

If you make it here though then the game proper begins. Natives essentially frame scenes about what their character is experiencing in the Occupation. As a part of the interesting asymmetry in the rules system a Native may invite another Native into their scene but the Occupation may join whenever they like and once they have joined a scene then then any Natives need the Occupation's permission to join the scene.

Any scene plays out until it is resolved, ideally the scene will end in a conflict that is resolved mechanically but negotiated endings are possible without going to the dice.

Conflict

The conflict mechanism is interesting but did come in for some stick in that it is a dice gathering mechanic and while the totals of the dice are what matters there were a few cases of pools of five versus one die and people found it frustrating.

Conflict is actually divided into three phases: negotiation, dice rolling and finally fiat. Moving from phase to phase is called escalation and there are strong incentives to try to agree and avoid escalation. Losing is an absolute thing.

The final escalation to fiat is the most fascinating for me (although it might be my bias as I was playing the Occupation), at this level the Occupation resolves the conflict however they fit. Interestingly for a Native who has lost a serious conflict escalating to fiat (and therefore acknowledging the authority of the Occupation) is a good but ambiguous and dangerous option. The in-character aspect of having the Occupation become acknowledged as the power that judges and resolves issues between the natives is delightful.

The rules

After a conflict there is an interesting period of reflection where either the Occupation is subject to the contempt of the Natives (losing influence) if it did not play a part in the scene. If the Occupation was present then the Occupation judges whether each Native has followed the Rules or not. Those Natives that have broken the rules are stripped of points and those that followed the rules are given points. These pools of points are what will define the ending of the game. Also at this point the Occupation loses points if it failed to follow the Rules, although unwritten, the Rules represent the expectations of the Natives in their interactions with the Occupation.

After this phase (known as either Contempt or Judgement) the Natives then get together to discuss what lesson they have drawn from the scene. They then write a new rule based on what they think the moral of the scene has been. Game-wise they want to try and bind the Occupation's behaviour by defining rules that the Occupation might later want to break. However often the rules are double-edged as both sides are bound to them and the Occupation has the power in scenes to push the Natives against their own rules.

The game then continues until the players wish to stop or the points run out. Most times the game will end with the Occupation running out of points and losing the will to continue with their rule in its current form.

Concluding the game

When the Occupation or the Natives run out of points then the game is over. The most likely outcome is that the Occupation runs out of points and grants local autonomy to the Natives. However if the Natives are all out of points then the Occupation may violently remain in control.

For the Natives their fate is determined by the number of tokens they have, the more they have the more assimilated they are and the larger the role they may have in the new structure. Natives with few points are holdouts and unreconciled to the new regieme. Probably worse are the people who are in the middle, trusted by neither the Natives or the Occupation.

Effectively the players narrate an epilogue to their game based on these rules. For our game a violent suicide bombing campaign sapped the will of the Occupation but the remaining leaders had been marginalised or coopted into the new society. The former drug haven was now set on the first steps towards becoming a new Hong Kong.

Final thoughts

Dog Eat Dog was a game that I thought was interesting when I first heard about it but after playing it I think it one of the really interesting games to have been published recently. It has a big, politically engaged theme and it allows you to tackle big ideas within a solid game design framework. I might need to play some more games to really feel confident in it but it is one of the games I am looking forward to seeing more of in the future.

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