For those who have never played the game. It is the first RPG with real interaction between players. It is also the first in a lineage of games. Over time it gets morphed into other games which are finally published as the Fantasy Adventure Game, Dungeons & Dragons.
Anyone who plays any RPG today is likely playing a descendant of David Wesely’s Braunstein games.
This year at Gary Con I once again managed to get invited to play as The Man from Imperialist Industries.
This means I get to play the American in the fictitious South American country of Banania.
The game is interesting since everyone is given a persona to play as well as an objective they must achieve. This is complemented by a variety of assets; be they a group of people who support you, weapons and vehicles, cash money, or dirty secrets about another player’s persona.
Since the game models the power struggle between people of varying levels in status in a fictitious banana republic in the 1950’s, one’s goals are based on improving one’s position in the social hierarchy during game play. It is non zero sum in that several people can win the same game. This is either because one’s objectives do not overlap with someone else’s, or due to an alliance of players with similar objectives.
As the game began we were all informed that today is the national holiday celebrating Banania’s liberation from the European Colonial Oppressors. There will be some kind of procession and carnival. But all is not perfect in Banania. Our great leader, El Jefe is on a diplomatic trip to the United States thus control of the great nation is in the hands of his capable, and equally corrupt, underlings who run the various military branches. El Jefe’s son is on hand as well, though many question his ability to lead anything more than a drinking party.
The banana picking and packing company has been exploiting the workers and the fruit pickers union, as well as the banana packers union, are both agitating for reforms and higher pay. It is even whispered in some places that they will demand the shockingly radical concept of the 12 hour work day!
Most games of Banania end with half the town on fire and tanks rolling around while helicopters hover overhead, while the populace is streaming into the jungles for safety. Words such as Byzantine, or the name Machiavelli, come to mind. The game is all about good wholesome back stabbing political fun.
For the record, this is my kind of game. It models human behavior really effectively. It also allows a creative schemer like myself to really stretch their creative ability.
Right from the beginning of the game the heads of the secret police, the marines, the army, and the air force all identified each other and left the main room to go outside in the hallway and collude.
This left me, as the American, with tons of cash, to go about stirring the pot of dissent and having meetings with the rebel forces whom I ask to create a bit of havoc in the city. Nothing really fuels the need for American made goods than a good old civilian insurrection. By goods, I mean arms shipment orders.
It’s the 1950’s and US interventions to promote democracy are ramping up around the world. Most of all, the military industrial complex has sidled up to the trough and demands its share.
I also met up with the fruit packing company owner and asked what I could do to alleviate the schism between the workers and the company. Oh, did I mention that I was already waving a big stack of dollars around and handing out tokens of my appreciation to everyone I met with? I don't really care if he talks to the unions, I am just spreading cash around to make friends as a form of insurance.
Yup - Cash is King in Banania!
I honestly cannot remember every detail of what transpired in the game. What I do recall is that the game seemed too imbalanced. Every turn, the heads of military would gather outside to discuss their plans for dominance, then return to the room we were playing in for the next set of moves with big smug grins on their faces. There seemed to be nothing to stop them from openly displaying this feeling of impending victory.
Having played games of Banania before, I knew that the workers would likely head en masse to the main city square in order to hold a political rally and that all branches of the military would then descend on this rally and start breaking skulls.
As the game progressed I also realized I had not achieved any of my own objectives of leaving Banania and heading back to the good old USA with a briefcase full of cash.
I was stumped. I wasn’t losing and yet I wasn’t winning. I was just sitting in my hotel on the south eastern edge of the map spinning my wheels. Of course this was my game persona sitting in the hotel. In reality I was sitting in a conference chair staring at the smug hubris of the military leader players and wondering what I should do to up end their glee.
Something needed to happen and soon.
As I sat there feeling a bit dejected, it came to me that what I needed was a way to pry them apart and make them feel less confident. Thus I hatched a plan to redirect their energy and cause a bit of chaos of my own. All I needed was the right kind of lever!
The next turn I took each one of them aside, one by one, for a private meeting. We would discuss their needs (This is where bribes would be mentioned as well.) and my need of a visa so that I can leave the country in a plane. Then as the meeting was coming to an end I would casually let drop a comment like this, “I suppose you already know about the assassination plot against all the heads of military?”
You’ve seen the old credit card commercial that ends with the statement that some things are priceless. Well, with every meeting I held, the revelation of the assassination plot was truly priceless. Every single player I met with briefly lost control of their facial expression. I could see their smug smiles contorted into looks of shock and even fear. Of course, I was inwardly giggling to myself.
“Oh, you had no idea that there is a plot to decapitate the entire military and secret police via assassinations and replace you with new blood?”
Somehow it had never occurred to any them that they themselves as individuals could be the targets of violence. Or, that they could be easily removed from the game entirely.
After a few seconds each would ask me where I had heard of this scheme, to which I would respond, “Oh, you know, rumors like this just float around in Banania. My advice is that you avoid public places and keep your defenses close.”
I would end with a plea for that visa I wanted along with a down payment in cash and a promise that I would send a large cash gift from America once I was home safe and sound.
Every meeting I held followed a nearly identical script. Talk about Banania business, ask for visa, reveal plot for assassinations, ask for visa again, offer some cash. All followed by a hand shake.
By the next turn, the military heads were once again gathering to confer on their master plan. I wasn’t privy to their scheming, yet I suspect that on this turn the mood was different. Most of the scheming was about how not to get rubbed out by assassins. They probably talked about little else thus their other schemes were delayed by this, shall we say, distraction?
On the next turn our game ended.
David Wesely conducted the epilogue stage of the game where he reveals all the secret story lines and what everyone had been scheming about during the game. We were low on time, thus he hurried through everyone else’s activities and did not cover what my persona did during the game.
I stayed to help David pick up the game and pack up to leave. As we did this he asked me what I had done on the last turns of the game. I explained that I had gotten a visa to leave the country, thus I had effectively won my game. Then I went on to explain how I had managed it and I had the pleasure of seeing David Wesely get an impish sparkle in his eye along with a look of admiration as we both laughed heartily over my end-game.
The game had ended strangely. By the last turn of the game we played everything was different from every other game of Banania I had ever seen played. Sure, the workers all gathered for their anti government rally in the city square. Yet, the military was nowhere to be seen. Unlike the other games, the military wasn’t running around cracking people’s heads in order to create peace.
Instead, what happened is that each branch of the military was hunkered down in their own area, safely away from everyone else, protecting their leader and doing nothing to stop the insurrection.
It was, dare I say, un-Bananian in every way I can think of.
Banania is just a game. You don’t get an award or certificate of participation for playing. All you have are the good memories of having played the oldest individual role playing game in the lineage of games that lead to Dungeons & Dragons being published. On top of that, the only person on the planet who runs these games in this exact manner is the creator of the game, David Wesely.
In my case, I got the respect and approval of the game designer himself for my medieval conniving. You see, I really needed that lever to pry apart the powerful alliance a little bit and to help me get what I needed to win - my lever was simply useful information.
I am proud to say that via my revelation of secret information, none of the generals got assassinated, and there was no bloodshed in the city square - just this once.
I even got my visa and left Banania, presumably while flying first class and sipping champagne.
Since this was the last game session of Gary Con on Sunday, we had to pack up quickly and my own plans were never fully revealed to the other players, which is a pity, since they never got to find out that the assassination attempt was just a story I made up to trick them all into helping me achieve my goals.
I will leave you with this quote from Ross Maker in Secrets of Blackmoor, “…He’s the American. You can’t trust anyone else in Banania, but the American has gotta be straight - right?”
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