Tomorrow Usually Dies
There’s a board game called Tomorrow. It’s one of the best things I’ve played this year, and to understand what it’s all about, you only need to see two pictures. You’ll find them below.
This is the world. It contains six major powers — the European Union, United States, Russia, India, Arab Caliphate, and China — and many minor nations, with one hundred pawns representing its inhabitants. As it turns out, thanks to overpopulation, the depletion of natural resources, and environmental collapse, there are about 70 pawns too many. You can figure out the immoral mathematics on your own.
Two hours and eight rounds later, this is the world, sitting pretty at 36 pawns — a tad higher than projected, but considering the intense global impact of the populations that were eradicated by engineered diseases, genocidal wars, and nuclear weapons, it’s barely enough. Break out the champagne, humanity is saved!
Most of it, anyway. Most of Africa and the Middle East are totally depleted of inhabitants. China and India are populated more by the dead than by the living, by a considerable margin. Russia suffered a nasty outbreak of Plutoxin 7 that killed off two-thirds of its people, over half of Europe has turned rather ripe, and even the venerable United States couldn’t stave off a sweeping case of Anosognositis vectoring in from Central America — not to mention that nuclear “accident” that wiped out the Midwest. Poor Midwest. In fact, it seems the most populous regions are now South America and some of the remote island chains of the South Pacific.
Even so: victory!
And that’s Tomorrow, the most recent game from Dirk Knemeyer. It’s so unrelentingly dark, and its negotiations so loaded with glowered threats, impassioned bargains, and colorful verbiage, that some folks haven’t been able to play it without feeling rather crummy about themselves the next morning. As well they should, considering the previous evening they may have screamed something like, “If you unleash one more [deleted] disease in North Africa, I’m going to take this nuke and [deleted] and then [deleted] and then [deleted] every turn after that, you [deleted]!” And they may have questioned the parentage of their onetime best man, who had just set free a vial of Liquid Ebola on their capital. And maybe slugged their wife in the face.
Even so: victory!
Want to hear more? I knew you would. Come along.
Yes yes, victory! Though of course you realize there’s only actually room for one victor, right? It’s true that if you don’t depopulate most of the world within nine rounds that everybody will die thanks to toxic air, but even if you manage to save humanity from its own horniness and air conditioning and love of imported goods, only one of the six major nations is going to wield enough political capital to become the reborn earth’s first superpower. And ideally, that nation will be yours, while the others suffer the residual mutations of the Weeping Pruritus you set loose years ago. All’s fair in love, war, and dispassionate genocide, saith the bard.
Each turn sees each player selecting two cards, pretty things like “biologicals,” “nukes,” and “military,” and then one by one, each nation gets the option of playing one of those cards. And the team picking the turn order is the European Union.
This puts them in a tight spot, though it’s one of those tight spots like a canyon tollbooth, because sure, you’re right smack dab in the middle of everything and the odd disease will probably spill across the border and make your citizens’ retinas split open, but everybody is going to want to trade favor with the guy picking the turn order, especially since going first usually means someone is going to play an espionage card to block your latest attempt to infect their home with Nagato-708. So long as you juggle favors, giving priority spots to anyone who supports or protects you and banishing anyone who crosses you, you just might come out on the other side as dominant and influential as Europe (used to be).
Not everybody needs to worry so much about biological attacks. True, they’re the surest method of wiping out billions of people in under a year, but if you’ve developed the world’s premier disease prevention infrastructure, the way the United States has, then you don’t have much to worry about. And it’s a good thing too, since every member of your overweight population consumes the same amount as three people in most countries, making you a juicy target for anyone hoping to decrease global carbon emissions.
Of course, you’ll probably have to use your over-funded military to invade Central America and Canada and force their citizens to accept your poison vaccines too, otherwise someone might get the smart idea of unleashing their diseases into those regions and cackling as they spread across your borders, too mutated for any one panacea to halt.
Then again, maybe you’ll be Russia and have way too much empty Siberian space for a disease to spread across. Then maybe you’ll focus all your efforts on maintaining your immense nuclear stockpile and threatening to nuke anyone who even so much as looks at you cross-eyed, let alone sets off a disease in Red Square.
Nukes are a tricky proposition, because although they’re perfectly grand for killing lots of people, they’re equally grand at contaminating the land for the next thousand-plus years, meaning the track that counts how close humanity is to extinction or salvation ticks bit by bit towards the former eventuality whenever they’re used. Nukes are meant as a threat and a punishment more than anything else — the instant a clear winner begins pulling ahead, or an alliance starts ganging up on your downtrodden populace, you’re likely going to lose anyway, so why not bring down everyone else with you? It’s a heartless, brilliant balancing mechanism, and a cunning leader will be careful to keep themselves only marginally ahead, instilling her enemies with false hope. Maybe that leader is you.
Probably not though.
Winning the fight for political capital isn’t only about killing millions of people with nuclear and biological weapons. Sometimes it’s about a relatively peaceful action like invading a neutral nation and extending your “protection” over them, giving yourself access to their handy strategy cards and ensuring the loyalty of their people in the world to come. And at that game, nobody plays better than somewhat-peaceable India. This brute can invade nations and convince them to say thank you for the favor, making it all that much harder to oust their influence. And since one of the surest ways to win is by picking up strategy cards — which confer all sorts of helpful effects, from genius geneticists to control over the world media, not to mention loads of political capital — staying in control of as many minor nations as possible could be an assured route to victory.
Now and then though, you’re going to have to make an opponent’s plans blow up in their face. There are a couple ways to do this, whether using military cards to support or block other nations’ military actions (and solidifying or breaking alliances in the process) or sending out an espionage team to make sure a biological weapon never gets deployed (or maybe sending out an espionage team to kill the first espionage team, so the bomb does go off). And if you’re playing as the Arab Caliphate, you also have access to terror squads.
The Arab Caliphate is in a tough spot, adjacent to the teeming populations of China and India and therefore prone to spreading diseases. Thankfully, no other nation is quite so good at trolling. See, this is the only nation that can outright shut down one of a player’s two actions. Make an example by effectively ruining someone’s entire turn, and suddenly you’ve got five nations all too happy to negotiate with terrorists.
Oh, and once per game you can send a group of fanatics to blow up another player’s disease card on their very own capital. Awesome. And horrible, naturally. But mostly awesome.
Lastly there’s China, super-populated and probably everybody’s first target for that very same reason. Thankfully, China starts off in control of cyberspace, and is most likely to stay in control of cyberspace thanks to their closed society. Who knew that’d be such a benefit?
Cyberspace is a resource you’re going to underestimate, right until the moment you realize that whoever best controls the world’s access to information is probably the nation that will dominate the future. See, the owner of the cyberspace card can take a number of special actions, drawing or stealing strategy cards each turn, or — and listen up — controlling the turn order. Though don’t expect whoever’s controlling Europe to feel very kindly about it.
One of the best things about Tomorrow, aside from the fact that it’s hilariously mean and the conclusion of most matches requires a cool-down break so everyone can hug and make up, and aside from the fact that it does such a fantastic job of conveying its oppressive theme with its spartan layout and matter-of-fact events and diseases and possible actions, and aside from the fact that we need more games that are at least trying to say something about the futility of human nature and our unwillingness to change until it’s too late… aside from all of that, one of the best things about Tomorrow is that each of its six major powers plays like a different game, and it’s a beautiful thing. An ugly, horrible, terrifying sort of beauty, sure. But a thing of beauty nonetheless, asymmetrical yet always fun.
So long as you can hash it, that is. If you can, this is definitely something you should try.
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The surest way to ensure there’s a tomorrow is by purchasing Tomorrow through Amazon using this special world-saving and Space-Biff!-supporting link. Unfortunately, this link will also release a superflu that will eradicate most of the world’s population. Ah well, at least we saved everyone who could afford a bunker.