The Prisoner’s Dilemma: A Game

This is the current working draft of the “People” game my team is working on for Big Games. The Prisoner’s Dilemma seeks to see if a group of prisoners can stick together long enough to pull off a daring prison break. In the process, they’ll have to hold out against the crafty warden who works to divide and catch them.

Note: all the ‘balancing’ between the players and the warden in this game has been tuned for games with four prisoners as that’s all we have available. Certain numbers such as nights of work needed to escape and points needed for parole points may need to be tweaked for larger groups.


  • 1 Warden
  • 4-? Prisoners


The prisoners have two ways to win:

  1. 1) Breaking out of prison
  2. 2) Getting paroled

The warden has two ways to win:

  1. 1) Parole a prisoner
  2. 2) Catch all the prisoners working before they escape

To break out of prison, the prisoners, as a group, must complete (6) nights of work on their escape. Each night, each prisoner has the chance to work on the escape or not. For each prisoner who works without getting caught, one night’s work is completed.

If all (6) nights of work are completed, all surviving prisoners win and the game is over.

In order to get paroled, a prisoner needs to receive 3 parole tokens from the warden. The warden can give these out each round in exchange for information about who’s working.

If a single prisoner is paroled, the game ends, that prisoner wins and the warden also wins.

The warden also wins if all the prisoners have been caught working without any of them getting paroled.


Each day, while the warden is sequestered in his office, the prisoners formulate a plan. They decide who will work and those who will place a work token secretly in front of them.

Once they have decided who is working and who is not, each prisoner, one-by-one, goes to visit the warden for a private conversation. If the prisoner and the warden come to an agreement, the prisoner gives the warden information in exchange for a parole token. If the prisoner does not agree to accept the parole token, no information is exchanged.

The warden can only give out one parole token per day. If any prisoner receives (3) parole tokens, then that prisoner is paroled and wins the game. The warden also wins.

Once the warden has visited with all the prisoners, the warden returns to the yard and chooses which prisoner’s cell to search. It the chosen prisoner is working that night, he is caught and out of the game. If not, he is safe and remains in the game.

With the warden’s back turned, the prisoners who successfully worked now place their work tokens in public. If they have greater than (6), the remaining prisoners escape and the game is over.

If the prisoners have not yet escaped, they get a chance to investigate each other for collaboration with the warden. At the start of the game, each prisoner is issued a shiv. At this point in play, any prisoner with a shiv can accuse one of his fellows of collaborating with the warden. If the accused has received any parole tokens from the warden, he is shived and out of the game. Otherwise, if he has none, the accused takes possession of the accuser’s shiv.

If the prisoners have not yet escaped and no one has been paroled, the day ends and the next day begins.

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