Waiting for Goulash
For those of us who haven’t lived it, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like under Soviet rule. In Poland, once the last political opposition was eliminated in 1947, once the last resistance fighters were killed in 1963, once private entrepreneurs were ousted from the economy in favor of state administrators who emphasized military preparedness and national industries over individual comfort, times got lean. And when I say “lean,” I’m not talking about a shortage here or there. I’m talking about the long hunger of the 1970s and ’80s, when the demand for everything from meat to soap wasn’t even close to being met. These were the years of the endless queues lining Polish streets, when families would buy up whatever was available when they finally reached the front of the line. Even if it wasn’t something they could use themselves, at least they could barter it at one of many semi-legal outdoor markets.
Kolejka — or Queue, in English — is about those years when even the ration cards had ration cards. And that isn’t a joke. To prevent people from using too many ration cards, the communist authorities issued new IDs that tracked how many ration cards you used. That’s how bad things had gotten.
With all that in mind, Queue might sound like a dismal time. A game about standing in line? Set in a real-life period when family members would swap turns standing in their queue for a few hours at a time? When it wasn’t uncommon to ask for time off work so you could keep your family’s spot for an afternoon? When people referred to shopping as “hunting” for items rather than simply buying them, so difficult was it to track down even the bare essentials? When “professional queuer” was a thing you could be, standing in line for days at a time for a fee? When opposition party slogans like “How do you eat ration coupons? With a knife and fork?” were so radical that they sparked years of martial law?
Yep. Queue is about some pretty weighty subject material. After our most recent play, some of us basking in the glow of our success in hunting down our shopping list’s required items, others frustrated at their failure, a couple members just sat and contemplated the soul-crushing horror of it all.
The thing is, Queue actually provides a surprisingly good time. Not that it needs to. Originally published by the Instytut Pamięci Narodowej — the Polish Institute of National Remembrance — the point is largely educational: there was a regime that did this to people, that put the needs of human beings so low on their checklist that children and the elderly were forced to wait in their queues just to survive. There are worse things to be reminded of.
And yet, there it is. Queue is fun.
Here’s the rundown. Everyone is given a family and a shopping list. Maybe you want to prepare for a vacation to your “allotment garden,” or gather enough furniture and appliances to furnish your kitchen. Whatever your list, it’s your goal to finish it first, so you send your family to line up around town, hoping that what you need will come in soon.
First of all, the items themselves are darkly hilarious. There’s the guidebook that lets you “get to know the sunny beaches of a friendly country” — referring to Bulgaria, of course. The cigarettes are 50% stuffed with hay. The cake mixer was proudly “made in Poland with socialist technology,” and the lamp comes with a feature to “adjust the arm to create a special mood.” It’s all crap desperately trying to pass as worthwhile merchandise, like a kid nervously grinning about a school collage he put about ten minutes of effort into.
Winning is all about getting your people to the front of lines so they can bring home the
bacon horrifying black pudding. To that end, every in-game day revolves around playing cards that let you bend the rules of the queue. For instance, you might figure out a way to get yourself onto a community list, one of the government’s inventions for putting preferred people first in line. This will swap one of the queues around entirely. The last shall be first and the first shall be last, Soviet-style. Or maybe you’ll accuse someone in line of criticizing the authorities, holding him back while the men with guns check his papers. If that fails, some good old-fashioned bribery might let you go home with an item before the store opens for its allotted hour.
With everyone working from the same deck of possibilities, Queue quickly becomes surprisingly cutthroat. You’ll butt a friend in line (by borrowing a friend’s baby, you sly hound) only for them to announce that the store you’re in line for has been closed for stocktaking. Reveal an increased delivery to a store where you’re third in line, and somebody might snatch your windfall away with a delivery error, resulting in dish-washing fluid being sold in the clothing shop where they happen to dominate the line.
Barring those sorts of tactics, sometimes getting what you need is simply an exercise in delayed gratification. Need some canned ham, but not necessarily anytime soon? With an expiration date stretching into the mid-’90s, it’ll keep, so go ahead and send your daughter to wait at the grocer’s! She might reach the front of the line sometime next week. For a game focused on historical education, Queue sure knows how to reward those who can think three or four days ahead.
Other times you won’t be able to get what you need, sent back and forth in your line until your hair turns grey. This is where the outdoor market comes in. The various lines around town are filled not only with everyone’s family members, but also with speculators, the scum of the earth who drag goods back to the market to be sold at a sizeable markup. Unless you hit on a daily deal, you’ll pay through the nose. But hey, you need what you need.
All these different parts combine to create a fluid economic game where slights are traded more readily than those state-run stores bother to take shipments. Players jostle for position, whine when they’re pushed to the back of a line, make detours to the outdoor market, block each other out of petty revenge, and stare desperately as their shopping list continues to go unfilled. And it is fun. Not necessarily in a way that will have everyone cracking another beer and taking another go at that sucker three times in one evening, but in a way that’s surprisingly competent for a game that’s about highlighting the human toll of the sins of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history. It’s even the sort of game you might want to play from time to time.
Ultimately, the reason I’m bringing up Queue now — it was originally published five years ago — is because it recently swapped publishers, and someone over in Russia decided it was a good time to ban the thing. Why they thought this move would make them appear less repressive is anybody’s guess.
It’s hard to get ahold of Queue, especially since its new publisher doesn’t seem interested in shipping anywhere outside of Poland. But if you can lay hands on a copy, I highly recommend it. Not only will you be getting a great worker placement game that successfully walks the tightrope between being informative and being enjoyable, you’ll also be kicking censorship in the soft bits.