Semi-Coops and the Maharajadhiraja

I love semi-cooperative games, where the players have to work together but there will ultimately only be one winner. They have a natural narrative to them: an Act I in which players are careful to demonstrate their goodwill even as one or two antagonists start to emerge, an Act II that sees the players’ interests diverge and cooperation become more difficult, and then finally an Act III where the players make their final bids for power. Every play of a semi-cooperative game has the potential to become a great story.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this sort of game, thanks to John Keay’s excellent India: A History.

Image from Amazon
Image from Amazon

In his book Keay talks about the concept of the maharajadhiraja, the “raja of rajas of rajas.” To acquire this title one had to do more than merely conquer territory. In fact, taking and holding ground wasn’t necessarily even desirable; the maharajadhiraja might exert personal control over only a relatively small area. Rather, to be the raja of rajas of rajas one had to command the loyalty of other rulers. Far from annihilating competing kings, one left them in place to acknowledge one’s superiority.

Although the idea of the maharajadhiraja was never intended to serve a game design purpose, I can’t help but feel that it points toward an interesting approach to a semi-coop. The leader seeks, not to eliminate other players from the game, but to keep them involved and even powerful, so that their might will make the leader’s supremacy all the more impressive. Of course, those other players are candidates to be leader as well, and must weigh their odds of successfully claiming the title for themselves against the benefits of peace and prosperity under the current order.

Such a design would also raise fascinating questions about the nature of winning. Is it necessary to end the game as the maharajadhiraja in order to win? What if a player succeeds in maintaining a safe, happy kingdom as a subordinate ruler—is that a victory? Should it be? What message does either choice send?

I’m currently spending some time on Over the Next Dune, and in fact hope to have everything in place to jumpstart its playtesting very soon. However, I’d love to pursue this idea further, both as a design and as a source of theoretical questions. Is anybody on the whole 25th-hour-in-the-day issue?

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