As part of our March Spotlight on SHASN, we strive to inform readers of little extra tidbits surrounding the game. Games are made by people, and one of those tidbits we enjoy is learning a little bit more about the people behind them. Some designers shy away from the public stage, while others enjoy being front and center.
When it comes to India-based designer Zain Memon and the SHASN story, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects is that when you boil it down, it isn’t all that much about the game itself. To him, the game is a merely a vehicle to larger discussions. Beneath the cards and cardboard of his inaugural Kickstarter game resides an even more fundamental message about finding ways to learn more from one another and the world in which we all inhabit.
This happens to be the driving mission behind him and his team’s Memesys Culture Lab, a new media company that focuses on wanting to help foster dialogue and create better understanding between one another. Whether it’s making videos, crafting literature, or, yes, creating board games, this same purpose undergirds them all, and it does so be it discussing science, philosophy, culture, or in the case of SHASN, politics and systems of governance. Which isn’t to say that despite only being one part of their lofty goals they aren’t incredibly excited about SHASN’s design and the initial response to it. And wouldn’t you be? Given the events in democratic states over the last couple years, it’s undoubtedly been a bumpy ride, there was genuine concern that people may be burnt out on the idea of a politically themed game and, perhaps, that interest would fall flat. But as Zain attests, so long as there systems of governance, there’s always going to be someone willing to engage on them.
Luckily with SHASN, that’s entirely the premise; the name itself essentially means government. In this thematic game of conflict-driven area control, each player finds themselves behind the wheel of running an electoral campaign to secure victory. The parameters of how victory is achieved varies depending on the era and country in which you play, plus any number of variants of your choosing. Navigating each game forces you to thematically address the numerous real-world issues affecting the people in that moment without necessarily them becoming the focal point of the game itself. And in the end the result is the same – get elected. Finding that healthy balance between embracing the subject material and making a palatable game to even the apolitical is never easy, but Zain and his team managed to pull it off. Hence why we reached across the globe to chat with him about how this laudable title game to be, what he hoped to get out of its creation, and where he hopes it goes from here. Which he was more than grateful enough to do. We share part of that conversation with you today.
Round One Questions
CR: What was your Gateway Game?
I’ve played a lot of board games growing up. Scotland Yard and Game of Life. Then there was this one with firefighters and cats that I can’t seem to find on BoardGameGeek anymore. The games we got in India were very limited, and for a decade after that I barely played any games because I was completely cut off from the subculture and the ecosystem. I was re-introduced to the hobby with lots of water deep sometime in 2015, and I just stumbled down the rabbit hole from there playing a bunch of Euros, area control games, and card drafting games that made me fall in love with the hobby again.
CR: What was the last game you really enjoyed playing (besides your own titles)?
Recently I have really enjoyed Tapestry, Everdell, and the Unmatched series. The new Dune, Twilight Imperium, and Gloomhaven are super fun too, but I really can never get enough people to the table to play with me.
CR: How big is your game collection?
My game collection stands around 230 games right now, plus expansions. It also doubles as a mechanic library for my own designs. If I am building something, I try to get my hands on the best in that genre, mechanism, or theme. It gets very difficult to build a collection up because everything has to be muled back from the US or we have to pay exorbitant duties on importing them, but if I had my way I would have a larger collection.
CR: What is your favorite type of game to play?
I like high conflict area control games or Euro games with high player interaction. I really covet a lot of player interaction in games where your choices reasonably affect the gameplay of your opponents.
CR: How do you feel about Monopoly?
Monopoly if played right is fun for non-gamers, but I actually have never played the regular Monopoly. In India we had this version of Monopoly – I don’t know if it was official or not – called Business, or Vyapar. I played a bunch of that growing up, but I haven’t revisited that in two decades. Wow…and now I feel old.
And in India everyone just thinks that board games are just Monopoly. The hobby or the culture didn’t grow past that, but board games are so much more!
CR: Games about political campaigns can be tricky to make and often are difficult finding willing audiences with an appetite for them. What would you say to someone apprehensive about such games that sets SHASN apart?
When I first started showing SHASN to the community at large, I was apprehensive about how a political strategy game would do. We tend to second guess audiences, to put them into cookie cutter boxes saying this is what people enjoy and this is what they don’t. This second-guessing led to a complete vacuum when it came to political games, especially in the last decade. Honestly, it created an opportunity for me. I wanted to create a game that I would enjoy playing, and I wanted to create a game that spoke about the world we inhabit. That’s the living philosophy we build all our products with.
SHASN is about politics and it makes you think about questions that people normally would sweep under the rug, but it does that with humor. It does that by creating a safe space, by creating a magic circle that allows people to talk about political opinions that they might differ on. But at the same time it allows you to always have the out of saying, “Hey, I’m just doing this for the game.”
Once you start seeing parts of politics, SHASN is fundamentally an area control game, it’s a high conflict area control game that gets emotions soaring, that gets people really excited. So while politics is a central theme, the focus was on making it a fun engaging game. And if you like high conflict area control games, I think SHASN is for you.
CR: When setting out to design SHASN, did you play a lot of other campaign-style games for testing? Do you have any personal favorites that you enjoy?
I didn’t play a lot of campaign-style games; I couldn’t get my hands on them, I wanted to play Die Macher, but the Kickstarter happened right before SHASN and it didn’t ship in time for me to play it while I was designing SHASN. We watched a lot of documentaries and films and we consumed a lot of nonfiction about politics while designing the game.
But I did play a lot of area control games and Euro-style engine building games to build SHASN which weren’t politically themed.
CR: The democratic world has changed since SHASN originally debuted in 2019. Between the Indian and US elections of 2020, the ongoing Brexit saga, and deteriorating conditions elsewhere (i.e. Hong Kong, Belarus, Turkey, Hungary), the last few years haven’t been especially great for liberal democracy. In what ways have these events affected the general interest of the game – if at all?
It always feels like we are at the most exciting times in politics for the people living them. Politics has been a shitstorm for 2,000 years now and will continue to remain so, but we are at an inflection point. We are nearing points of no return when it comes to climate change and the liberties of marginalized groups.
The engine of SHASN allows me to tell these stories in an enticing way. We have put out an engine for people to build their own campaigns on SHASN because I want people to have political conversations about what they care about while playing the game, and I hope many people start building their own campaigns.
We already have people building an Australia deck and a World War I deck. I would love to see campaigns about Hong Kong, the Middle East, and Central Africa. I would love for people to own the game as their own political sandbox.
In terms of affecting the general interest for SHASN – it’s a double-edged sword. People want to engage in politics, but at the same time, there’s also a lot of political fatigue where people don’t want to talk about politics anymore. A lot of people wrote in at the start of the year saying that after the last year of American politics, they don’t want to look at politics till next year, but at the same time there have been people who just can’t get enough of the political conversations.
CR: As a campaign simulator, the game has the potential to be both entertaining and educational. Beyond wanting players to have fun, how much effort did you put into it to also make it a worthwhile learning experience?
I like to think of the media pieces I create and produce as trojan horses: they’re going to be beautiful and grand and enticing, but once you let them through the gates of your mind, there’s going to be wholesome content that will storm out and infest your brain. And that’s what we’ve done with SHASN.
The shiny silver box and take-that mechanics draw you in, but when you open the box you talk about everything from minority rights to climate change to historical injustices that have been permeated through our political landscape. A lot of our focus wasn’t the traditional follow-the-fun and philosophy. The fun was just a means to an end. The idea was to make people aware of the systemic flaws in our political system and in our actual democracies. If one or two politicians were crooks you could perhaps put the entire blame on them, but if we have had generations and generations of crooks in politics, maybe the system is incentivizing those personality types and the system itself is flawed. Not to take any blame away from the politicians, but we need to really introspect on how politicians are funded, how our media cycles work, on what narratives people fall for, and repair the political system itself. We have put a lot of effort into translating that into the game, and I hope it translates.
CR: On that same note, if you could have every player get just one takeaway from the game, what message would that be?
Every political decision, every policy decision, everything a politician says or chooses not to say has implications on not only their followers and their political campaign but the fabric of the nation at large. We need to hold our politicians accountable and really deeply think about why they’re saying what they’re saying.
CR: One of the more ingenious elements to SHASN is its modular nature: rather than being a game about a specific country or time period, with some card and rule modifications it’s possible to create a whole new electoral system to navigate. What sort of challenges go into designing a multitude of different electoral setups?
Bonini’s Paradox states that the more you simplify a simulation, the less accurate it becomes, and vice versa. Designing this game was an act in finding the balance between accuracy and accessibility. I wanted to create a system that was a representative electoral democracy but at the same time wasn’t necessarily the first-past-the-post system or the electoral college system or any of the other systems. It’s an approximation of what democratic electoral systems feel like.
Once we had that balance in place the idea was to create a system that would be modular not only for our team to build something on top of but for people at large to build their own campaigns on.
We ended up trading up a lot of narrative fidelity for modularity, but in the end, I think we have struck a fine balance between what national politics feels like no matter where you’re from.
CR: SHASN, like the politics it represents, also has quite a few moving pieces to it, from area control of voting blocs, to engine building around specific ideologies, to adapting to a continually changing environment of issues and resources. Did you approach its design by starting more with its thematic elements or mechanical ones? Were there any campaign aspects that were initially included that you ended up having to cut for some reason?
With the films, television, or games I make, the journey always starts with the ideas we want convey to our audience. SHASN was largely theme-first. We built mechanics around the systems we wanted to lay bare and the stories we wanted to share. We played to the strengths of the medium to make people feel like they were a politician stuck in a zero-sum system.
CR: The game ran to incredible Kickstarter success in 2019 with over 4,200 backers. Did that kind of response affect the campaign itself or how you approached its production afterwards?
SHASN did better than we expected it to. It also did better than what most people in the industry thought it would do. I had honestly put my hopes at around Die Macher numbers as the ceiling, as that campaign had finished a couple of months earlier and because it has been a cult classic in the political gaming niche. But the backers were kind and supportive of a new creator and we wanted to reciprocate that, so we ended up adding a lot of content that we otherwise wouldn’t have developed had we not received that response. It bought us more time and brought us more confidence to put more content out there. The early responses from people were that they really enjoyed the game, and that’s reassuring.
We are also going to give continued support to all our backers. We are putting out updates for SHASN later this year and making sure that all the 4,200 original backers receive it for almost free.
CR: Finally, if you could transport yourself to any point in time and observe one single election (or change in power more broadly), when and where would you go, and why?
It would have to be 1945-1952 India. A lot changed from independence, to partition, to political organizations being banned and reinstated. I want to be in the room when that happened and see why these things transpired the way they did.
Look, we get it: democracy isn’t easy, smooth, or simple. For many it may be difficult to find an enthusiasm for the topic given the events of the last year or two (or ten). The struggle for democracy lately has been at the forefront of the daily lives for millions of people spanning from one side of the globe to the other, and that reality may make you simply wish to check out entirely. But stay with us here. It’s inescapable that SHASN is a politically themed game, yes, but thanks to its modular campaign systems, allowing you to learn and experience self-rule from other times and countries, as well as a heavy focus on area control and engine building elements, it isn’t “just” a campaign game. It also provides a vehicle for better insight into the systems behind the issues and how much of a role they play in our daily discourse.
Naturally we wouldn’t be sitting here vouching for the game if we didn’t think it was contributing something worthwhile and unique to gaming, and we thought about different ways we could riff on that to better showcase the game. Ultimately, we kept coming back to, you know, doing some kind of election. But really, between recent events and the game itself there’s plenty of that motif still going around. So we went the complete opposite route and, perhaps somewhat ironically, decided that the best way to celebrate this election-focused game is to raffle off a copy of the game completely randomly. And you can enter at the link below!
Photo Credits: SHASN cover and photos by Memesys Culture Lab.