One of my favorite accounts on the Fediverse is ca-dmv-bot. This is a bot that posts actual vanity license plate requests that the California Department of Motor Vehicles received between 2015 and 2016, along with a reviewer’s comments on them, and whether they were approved or denied. It’s a lot of fun seeing what kind of weird and/or obscene things people tried to get on a license plate, and the reviewer’s reasons for approving it or denying it.
I’m not normally a person that makes games, but my brain kept telling me that there’s a game mechanic in this. So, in order to appease it, I am pleased to present:
The License Plate Game
This is a party game for at least 4 players, although at least 5 is a more ideal number. In addition to the players, you will need:
- Scraps of paper
- A writing implement
Cast of characters
One player is the applicant. The applicant wins by getting the clerk to incorrectly approve a plate that is offensive, or by getting the clerk to incorrectly deny an innocent plate. The applicant must walk the line between fooling the clerk while still having the meaning of their plate be recognizable to the audience.
One player is the clerk. The clerk wins by correctly guessing the meaning of the plate, or what “most people” would say the plate means. If the clerk fails at that, they may also win by denying an offensive plate, even if they got the meaning wrong.
The rest of the players are the audience. The audience is mostly along for the ride; they can neither win nor lose. They serve as a check on the clerk’s interpretations and vote to settle disputes. Otherwise, their job is to heckle the clerk.
How to play
The applicant makes up a plate number, and secretly writes down the true meaning of their plate. The meaning may or may not be offensive (as defined by your local community standards.)
- You can make your own house rules for what sorts of plate numbers are allowed, but here’s a starting point: up to 8 characters, A through Z and 0 through 9, spaces are allowed but don’t count toward the limit. Some US states also allow special characters like a heart (❤️) - feel free to adjust this to your taste or to better simulate your own state or country.
The applicant reveals their plate number to the other players. The clerk has 5 seconds to announce what they think the true meaning of the plate is, and if it is approved or denied. If the clerk thinks the plate is offensive, they should deny the plate; otherwise, they should approve the plate. If 5 seconds pass without the clerk announcing a decision, the plate is considered to be approved.
- The time limit is meant to simulate the experience of being an overworked clerk in an understaffed bureaucracy.
Each audience member announces what they think the true meaning of the plate is. They may choose to agree with the clerk’s interpretation, or supply their own. Audience members may discuss their interpretations with each other before committing to them. There is no hard time limit on audience deliberations.
- Think of the audience as other people on the road who might notice the plate or get stuck behind it in traffic.
The applicant reveals the true meaning of the plate.
If the clerk correctly guessed the true meaning of the plate and correctly judged it as either offensive or innocent, the clerk wins the round.
- Generally, if the clerk gets the meaning of the plate correct, then they will also get the judgement correct, but the clerk’s judgement can be disputed by the applicant or any audience member; see “Exceptional cases” below.
If the clerk incorrectly guessed the true meaning of the plate, but at least half of the audience agrees with their interpretation, the clerk wins the round.
- This discourages applicants from providing bad-faith interpretations of their plate numbers.
If neither the clerk nor any member of the audience correctly guessed the true meaning of the plate, the round is a draw.
- This discourages applicants from providing completely inscrutable plate numbers.
Otherwise, at least one person other than the applicant has correctly guessed the true meaning of the plate:
If the meaning of the plate is offensive, and the clerk denied it, the clerk wins the round.
If the meaning of the plate is offensive, and the clerk approved it, the applicant wins the round.
If the meaning of the plate is innocent, and the clerk denied it, the applicant wins the round.
If the meaning of the plate is innocent, and the clerk approved it, the round is a draw.
If the applicant or an audience member disagrees with the clerk’s judgement about what is offensive or innocent, they may dispute it. Disputes are resolved by a vote of the audience.
If an audience member thinks deliberations are going on too long, they can call for cloture. This is also decided by a vote of the audience. If the vote succeeds, all audience members who have not done so must immediately supply an interpretation or be quiet for the rest of the round. An individual audience member can only call for cloture once per round, but if a cloture vote fails, a different audience member may call for cloture later.
In either case, if the vote of the audience ends in a tie, the clerk casts the deciding vote.
I haven’t actually played this yet, but I suspect that, as in real life, the rules favor the clerk. To ensure that everyone has the most fun, each of the players should rotate through the roles. You may also want to weight applicant wins more heavily; i.e. an applicant win is worth 3 victory points whereas a clerk win is only worth 1.
Thinking up clever plates on the fly can be hard, so you might want to have a brainstorming session before playing, where all the players spend time thinking of and writing down ideas for plates to use when they are the applicant. Obviously, the players should keep their ideas secret from each other during this process, to avoid tipping off their future clerk.
If you decide to play this, I’d love to know how it goes! Assorted ways to contact me can be found on the front page.