Trial by Board Game

Kids play with the law all the time. This summer, countless backyard games of Cops ‘n’ Robbers will end with a cornered cousin or felonious friend being dragged off—temporarily—to the hoosegow. Normally that happens without a trial—Defendants ‘n’ District Attorneys has never caught on with the small set. Even when kids do stage trials, the outcome is never in doubt: you always get a hanging judge and a dire sentence.

Adults have their own versions of legal games too. Although games about other professions exist, no other learned profession lends itself to games in quite the way that litigation does. With its distinct parties, strict rules open to infinite interpretation, and definite goals, law can easily be turned into a game (in fact, game theory is one of the leading schools of scholarly analysis for law, public policy, and litigation). But that doesn’t entirely explain the almost two dozen legal games published since 1970. As anyone who has watched the ebb and flow of a game of Cops ‘n’ Robbers can tell you, part of the fun is arguing over whether you’ve been caught or not—“I got you!” “No you didn’t!” “I did!” “Naw, you just winged me!” Like kids, adults love to argue, and games based on criminal and civil litigation provide a structured atmosphere in which they can bicker to their hearts’ content.

Not all law games are created equal, though. Some, like the board game Jury Trial, which simulates the voir dire process of empanelling a jury, are little more than glorified Monopoly games with the goal of getting your client off and amassing the most money in fees. (Jury Trial’s most notable feature may be the box art which features two Florida state senators, one representative, the Broward County commissioner, several corporate presidents and CEOs, and a law school dean.) Other games, like Chicago attorney James N. Vail’s Trial Lawyer (1978), combine the board-game format with actual law. It lets players work their way from indictment and bail all the way through acquittal or conviction using a realistic combination of Constitutional rights, the Federal Rules of Evidence and Criminal Procedure, and relevant case law.

The very best legal games follow Trial Lawyer’s example. Trial!, a card game created by Gini Graham Scott in 1971 (almost 20 years before she received her law degree), relies on a stripped down version of the Federal Rules of Evidence, taking away the thorny issues of hearsay, character evidence, and evidence of prior crimes. Using these rules, three teams—prosecutor, defense, and judge-jury—square off in a mock trial that involves calling witnesses, marshalling evidence, and trying your darndest to get a client off, get her convicted, or to confuse the jurors so much that they can’t reach a decision (in which case, as in life, nobody wins).

Point of Law moves the legal game from the realm of criminal law to civil law, simultaneously taking players from trial courts to appeals courts. Based on a long-running radio show that started in 1952, Point of Law (1972) has players match wits and common sense to figure out which of four sample verdicts in a particular case is the correct one. The game features facts adapted from actual decisions issued by state and federal appeals courts. Players take sides and defend their opinions before consulting the holdings of the various cases appended to the end of the game book. Lawyers and law students will recognize the format of this game as “bar-exam lite,” and anyone who isn’t an attorney will see it as a forerunner of games like Scruples (1984), Wits and Wagers (2005), or Say Anything (2008). Point of Law sparks conversation and gets people thinking about how they would answer tough and often open-ended questions. Come to think of it, that’s exactly what lawyers, judges, and juries do every day. “Gotcha!” “No you didn’t!” “Objection, argumentative!” “Overruled.”