The Rules of Cliques

(Copyright 1999 by David Westbrook. All rights reserved.)


Players try to join social circles by cracking the code of each circle's secret language. The scoring system provides an incentive to make circles neither too easy nor too hard to join.

Playing the Game

Each player begins the game as a member of a circle whose only member is herself. Each player is equipped with a supply of index cards, something to write with, and an equal number of "approval" and "disapproval" tokens: either a number of approval tokens equal to the number of players, or six approval tokens, whichever is greater, and the same number of disapproval tokens. A general area of the playing surface should be assigned to each player's circle.

The starting player is determined randomly, and play proceeds clockwise. On her turn a player must make one remark within an existing circle. A player may only make a remark within a given circle if each of that circle's members has at least one approval token and at least one disapproval token. Such circles are called "open." If a player is unable to make a remark because no existing circle fulfills this condition, the game is over. A player may choose any open circle to make her remark in, including circles of which she is already a member.

To make a remark within a circle, a player writes, draws, or otherwise makes marks on an index card, signs the card, and then places the card in the area of the playing surface assigned to that circle. The player making the remark becomes "the speaker."

All current members of that circle must then vote on whether to approve or disapprove of the remark. Each member secretly chooses either an approval token or a disapproval token. (If a member of a circle believes that a remark submitted to that clique constitutes a duplication or an attempted duplication of a remark previously approved in that clique, she must vote to disapprove the remark.) All members reveal their chosen tokens simultaneously, and then place these tokens on the remark card. If the speaker is already a member of the group, she votes as well. No communication of any kind may take place between any players between the moment a remark is revealed and the moment all votes are revealed.

If the speaker's remark card contains only approval tokens, she becomes a member of the circle for the rest of the game and will vote on all future remarks to that circle. If the speaker's remark card contains both approval and disapproval tokens, then the speaker removes one approval token and one disapproval token from the card and places these two tokens in her personal token supply. She continues to remove approval-disapproval pairs and place them in her token supply until the card contains either nothing but approval tokens, nothing but disapproval tokens, or nothing at all. If, after this process, the card contains one or more approval tokens, the speaker becomes a member of the circle.

After a player makes a remark and the voting has been resolved, play passes to the player to her left, who repeats the process.


When the game is over (that is, when there are no more open circles), each player determines her score. For each circle of which a player is a member, she adds to her score the total number of tokens (approval tokens + disapproval tokens) on all remarks made within the circle. The player with the highest score wins.

Speculations on Cliques Strategy:

A player's first move should probably be to make a remark in her own circle and approve of it so that other players can try to join her circle. Ideally this initial remark will give a clue about what defines an appropriate remark within the circle, a clue that takes some effort to figure out so that some players will "get it" and other players won't. For example, an initial remark might read:

"The sun is good but the sky is bad.
Fire is good but water is bad.
Oranges are good but eggplants are bad"

Some players will get the trick that warm colors are good and cool colors are bad, and others won't.

Members of a circle will maximize the number of points that circle will earn them by maximizing the number of tokens that circle contains. This principle has a couple of ramifications:

There is an incentive for individuals to find ambiguities in the rules of a circle by making remarks that the rules of a circle can't easily evaluate. If, in the circle illustrated above, I were to remark, "A red and blue striped blouse is bad," some of the members might approve and some might disapprove because the "warm/cool" rule doesn't clearly resolve the question of how to evaluate combinations of colors. The more split the vote is, the more tokens I add to my own reserve and so the more I reduce the chances that I will shut down the circles I belong to by running out of tokens.

It is possible that as the game progresses, "social" considerations may take precedence over the rules for appropriate remarks as a means for determining approval or disapproval. A player who is low on one or both kinds of tokens (either because she is socially promiscuous and belongs to too many circles or because she belongs to the "wrong kind" of circles--either too exclusive or too inclusive) may be a liability to a circle, so members may be more inclined to apply especially stringent criteria to her remarks.