Conspire is meant to simulate tense meetings between powerful people. Every scene has extremely high stakes. The decisions of the group lead to disenfranchisement, subjugation, or death for individuals or factions. Regardless of how silly or absurd the universe becomes, the inhabitants of a Conspire game have everything to lose. Players start with little knowledge of others’ goals, leaving them feeling alone, clueless, and desperate. The stakes force them to act with confidence and build uneasy alliances. As the game progresses, the mysteriousness of the scene is replaced with politics and more-or-less earnest negotiation. To both improve these alliances and retain the scene’s intrigue, Conspire has a mechanic called “sidebars”. This is the ability to physically walk to another room with other players and have a private conversation.
Like influence, sidebars are a mechanic that takes players one use to grasp their power. Revealing your identity to the group is risky since others likely have goals targeting you. The sidebar gives players a chance to let their guard down. They can share roles and goals without everyone knowing. This is where deals are struck to achieve mutually compatible goals. Off in the shadows, the conspiracies within the conspiracy are made.
Of course, having a sidebar draws suspicion. Everyone left at the table knows you are plotting something. Even if your sidebar is to figure out a legitimate compromise, people assume the worst. One of the balancing mechanisms becomes the inverted sidebar at the main table. The remaining group gets to have their own private plotting (or split into increasingly smaller discussions). In practice, this frequently distracts from whatever issue the distant players are having and keeps everyone in the dark.
The best part of the sidebar is the physicality. We were surprised how much moving into a different room brings the scene to life. The game feels more real when you are having a talk about spiking punch by the janitor’s closet or forming an unstoppable conglomerate while overlooking a busy convention floor. Nothing fills you with more existential dread than watching two enemies step away to plot your demise. Seeing them drift out of sight has so much more impact than playing a card or moving a meeple.
Last night, we had a Conspire game that was mostly sidebars. We decided our scene would be a twist on the classic werewolf scenario. The werewolves kept sneaking off to discuss founding a cult focusing on happiness and love (the shaman needed a religion in the town, the other wolf wanted to find true love). The mayor secretly transferred control of the town over to a pacifist. The werewolf shaman discussed self-imposed exile with the badass hunter, leading to the whole town getting behind a wolf boat. The drunk stumbled between meetings trying to act as spy and somehow became trusted by everyone. In the end, a convoluted plan was hatched to achieve wolf-pacifist romance and was horribly botched because of what was, effectively, a game of telephone. The pacifist was murdered during the cult sanctification and the shaman was skinned alive.
None of us had any idea that scenario would pan out as it did. Most of the game was spent in secret meetings far from the table. We exploited each other’s trust and strained our credibility. Some of us scrounged together more achieved objectives than the rest, but at a great cost to the village. Historians will piece together many different conspiratorial accounts of that town hall meeting. No one person (or wolf) really knew the truth.