A Cold Drink of Meltwater
If you want to see an example of what a board game can accomplish, while also being something I’d never recommend as a birthday gift, look no further than Erin Lee Escobedo’s Meltwater. It’s unflinchingly brutal and despairingly perceptive both at once.
Brace yourself. I have thoughts about this one.
1. The Cold War
Meltwater’s setup will be familiar to anyone who’s lived for more than a couple decades, and certainly to anyone who’s watched the media produced by the preceding half century. The world has been consumed by radioactive fire. Groundwater poisoned. Soil glowing. Forests resembling bristling stands of spent matches. The only remaining drinkwater is located on that most inhospitable continent, Antarctica, frozen in shelf-ice and drifted snow. Two sides remain, the USA and USSR, embittered rivals hardened by years of propaganda and conflict.
The Cold War as an ugly pun.
2. On Concession
As far as board game objectives go, Meltwater’s is dysfunctional. You win by killing all your enemies. But at some point, usually around the two-thirds mark, you reach a point where it’s obvious that somebody will win and somebody else will lose. Yet you’re still grinding against each other like confused but enthusiastic teenagers, desperate to finish but uncertain how.
It’s been uttered that cardboard is the only hobby where its critics nearly always make the leap to design. An odd statement, on the one hand, though it’s true that Roger Ebert never decided that his fantasy remake of Taxi Driver would be better than the original. But there’s also some justice to the statement. After all, I, as a critic, spend a huge percentage of my free time thinking about game design. What would make a game smoother, or sand down a sharp edge, or draw out some greater degree of player enjoyment? After a certain point, why not do it myself?
And Meltwater is a rough one. That stark objective is part of it. “Why not use a population tracker?” the design-obsessed lobe of my brain whispers. “Then you’d win when you have, say, ten more population than your opponent. It would encourage you to press-gang refugees, encourage defections, and give every single starved civilian a point value. Everything quantified! Victory tracks! Abstracted elegance!”
But of course, that step is one step too many. The point of Meltwater is that regular people aren’t points; neither civilian refugees nor soldiers. The instant we assign people a quantifiable value, they become that value and lose what made them ineffable, what made them human. And anyway, there’s no reason why it can’t be the objective, to surrender once hope is lost. It’s just that it must be the objective of your own making. At what point do you simply throw your hands in the air, wave the white flag, and let somebody else win, rather than letting nobody win at all?
In other words, there’s nothing to prevent you from conceding before the game even begins. Lest we all die out here. It’s a cheat, sure, as every game that wants you to feel guilty for the sin of playing is a cheat. Hardly your fault that this is a game, with game pieces and game rules and game remoteness.
3. Civilian Soldiers, Compulsory Patriots
Hardly your fault, either, that this game about forced starvation has clearly been lovingly considered and meticulously tested, nor that it’s no slouch in the tactics department. If you’re to be impugned for sending civilians to their frigid graves, does Escobedo share some culpability for enabling such behavior?
We’ll circle back to that. For now, let’s talk about Meltwater as a game.
For one thing, Meltwater is far too smart to simply send armies smashing into each other. There are two types of units at your disposal, civilians and soldiers. Unsurprisingly, soldiers are the bigger danger but more limited in number. They can threaten civilians into toxic corridors where they’ll gradually starve or defect or die, and they’re your only option for wiping out opposing armies.
But civilians aren’t useless. They can transform into soldiers, though it’s a time-consuming process. More importantly, mobs of them can shove around enemy civvies every bit as effectively as the guys with guns. They can hold territory, press-gang refugees into joining your side, and perform logistics by securing supply caches while the troops are elsewhere. They’re essential cogs in your all-consuming thresher, welcoming new inductees and shoving around those whose principles continue to outlast the ache in their bellies.
Between these two units, Meltwater quickly becomes a game about pushing and pulling, and in turn about blocking your enemy from doing the same to you. Enemy units are pushed into dangerous terrain; refugees or defections are pulled into your ranks. Soldiers block these efforts, but they’re generally too few to prevent everything at once, especially as Antarctica grows more cankerous with radiation.
Speaking of which, we should probably talk about those black discs cluttering up the map.
4. Thomas Robert Malthus and Strategic Starvation
In explaining some of the design decisions that created Meltwater, Escobedo has written three design diaries, all of which are worthy of a read — here are parts one, two, and three. In her second diary, she talks about Thomas Robert Malthus, may his name live in controversy.
Malthus, perhaps better known by the theory of Malthusianism that he gave birth to, was burdened by a simple, terrible idea. Food, he argued, is the source of a population’s health and well-being. The problem with food, however, is that its abundance leads to a population increasing, and increasing, and increasing, until inevitably there are more mouths than meals. Cue societal decline, bondage-clad automobile gangs warring over scraps, and probably cannibalism.
It’s a controversial opinion for obvious reasons. As Escobedo herself argues, Malthus failed to account for the mechanizing effects of the industrial revolution whose doorstep he was encamped upon, and missed the reasons why urban centers were suddenly inundated with the filthy poor. More contemporarily, he’s the sort of guy who wouldn’t think to ask why Thanos couldn’t simply snap some additional resources into existence. In Malthus’s view, compassion only exacerbated the problem of overcrowding, and his ideas become the basis for such horrors as the selective racism of eugenics.
On the other hand, there’s nothing quite as natural as that back-of-the-brain nagging that surely there won’t be enough to go around. It’s the daycare principle, wherein every child wants another kid’s toy, because to not have it right now is to never have it. When only a small portion of humanity can survive, why not invoke the Great God Darwin to ensure it’s the “fittest” portion?
In Meltwater, this suspicion of scarcity is represented by Antarctica’s slow but inexorable decay. Each round concludes with the addition of two black discs to the map, representing the eroding effects of radiation carried by jet stream and ocean current. Kilometers of frozen water are regularly rendered poisonous from afar.
You’ll spend a lot of time tallying how many units a space can contain. Two is the baseline, plus one if the space contains an ice shelf, plus another if you’re adjacent to controlled supplies, and minus one if you’re adjacent to one of those black discs. Zero if you’re on a black disc. These discs appear according to a predetermined schedule, both this and next turns’ upcoming corruptions visible for all to see. It goes without saying that even the apocalypse will feature grinning weathermen ensuring that your morning commute need not be interrupted by heavenly fire. Blundering your people into that fallout is nobody’s fault but your own, while shoving those who salute the wrong flag into their path is one of the game’s workhorse tactics.
Starvation at a grand scale is your primary goal. Not shooting, but the slow ruin of a body without fuel, vomiting poison, weeping the glow of warheads.
Meltwater makes a sinister pleasure of corralling civilians into those barren places or enacting tactical strikes on enemy supplies. In both cases, the result is mass starvation. These maneuvers are easy enough to be achievable, but present sufficient hiccups and hurdles that doing so carries the joy of solving a puzzle. Cruelty as pastime.
5. El Cid’s Dilemma
Fortunately, for all its strokes of malicious pleasure, Meltwater never lets you rest easy.
Its principal grounding element is that your armies are often the last tool you want to employ. Soldiers are most useful for blocking enemy actions; no matter the size of a mob, you can’t displace enemy civilians into starvation if a friendly army is stationed nearby. In this way, soldiers are often more useful as deterrents than participants. But when it comes to a fight, they’re dangerous to everybody. Not only are both the attacker and defender wiped out completely, a fruitless loss that leaves no survivors, but a nearby space is also completely irradiated. Whether by dirty weaponry, trucks and planes tracking fallout through the pristine snow, or underground fissures opened by artillery shelling, the continent’s livable space grows slimmer with every engagement.
In that same design diary where Escobedo gives Malthus a solid dressing-down, she points out that her map of Antarctica actually provides enough to go around, provided you don’t wreck everything first. If supplies were shared and refugees shepherded away from the toxic coasts, some measure of security could be provided for all. Yet in the heat of that struggle for survival, you can’t see it. Can’t count it. And certainly can’t count on it, because even if you believe that there’s enough for everybody, why should your enemy?
But the fact stands that every action cuts both ways. Soldiers move into position to seize a supply cache, only to accidentally poison crucial terrain. Actions are spent to secure your frontier, yet elsewhere you’re harassed. You launch an offensive, the counter-attack scatters your civilians. Futility even in victory.
6. Less Is More
Speaking frankly — and invoking a curse of critical evaluation — Meltwater isn’t any fun at all.
If anything, it could have gone further. More factions, more players, more dog-eat-dog. I’m reminded of Dirk Knemeyer’s Tomorrow, a genuinely unpleasant message game that still managed to be grimly playable because it allowed up to six people to succumb to their darker impulses. The end of the world as hilarious negotiation.
As a statement, Meltwater works because it doesn’t tip over the edge into full-blown gaminess. In a group, you could blame your defeated soldiers and injured pride on something other than personal failure. Played with the intimacy of two people testing each other’s limits and boldness and intelligence, concession is all the harder because it’s an admission that you weren’t up to snuff. You failed because you failed, not because Geoff and Adam always voted as a bloc.
Which is appropriate, because Meltwater is about people gone blind with fury, who will not let anyone else win, even if it means that they cannot win either. And even as it encourages you to partake in that fury, to revel in the moment when your soldiers bully enemy civilians into starvation — an ugly, bitter revel, its ugliness and bitterness only sharpening the tang of iron in your throat — it’s also teaching you to recognize the impulse.
It’s a matter of degree, Meltwater suggests. The general in his bunker suffers the same hidden tremble as the player at the table, neither willing to admit they’ve been bested. Most of us don’t have a finger poised over the red button that will cast a million shadows against a million walls, but everyone understands the temptation to win a quarrel at the expense of dignity and kindness. And some, those who strive for real decency, remember that sometimes it’s better to back down and cool off, even when it’s a matter of principle.
Not always. But sometimes.
In terms of complicity, Meltwater stands on the firmest of ground. As satire, it bites. As warning, it’s apt. That dark pleasure is part of the warning, a reminder that even terrible acts are palatable with enough justification. If we only learn by repeating our mistakes, it’s appropriate that we should couch our lessons in play. Hopefully the only casualty will be pride.
Meltwater isn’t the sort of game I’d recommend for a family get-together. But for repeating mistakes without suffering the consequences, there aren’t many that do better.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi. There isn’t much to say after all that, but, ah, supporting independent critical voices is awesome).
A complimentary copy was provided.