Talking About Games: Feedback Error
The circle has turned yet again. Here we stand, ready to talk about what we talk about when we talk about board games. Hold on… (counts on fingers.) Yes. My count was completely correct. Well done, me.
To recap what brought us to this point, we began by talking about the inexpressiveness of the usual mechanics/theme dichotomy found in board game criticism. I then proposed the five categories I use in my own thinking and writing about games. Thirdly, we talked about chess to flesh out the concept of “feedback,” the spooky glue that integrates a board game’s other elements. And today, we’re going to do the opposite, by taking a game — and, far more importantly, a good game — to talk about its failures of feedback.
The game is none other than…
Oof. That’s loaded.
But frankly, Freedom: The Underground Railroad is exactly the sort of game that should engender feedback. If you recall our discussion from last time, that’s the entire point of the concept. Not only is feedback meant to project the game inward, rating its internal coherence between elements, but also outward, evaluating its impact between players and even, in some circumstances, on culture. Two opposite directions of inquiry that express largely the same thing: how well a game succeeds at merging its setting, themes, components, and mechanics into a tangible whole.
So let’s get started.
If you know me at all, Freedom is exactly the sort of game that holds appeal, blending history, abstraction, and an opinionated stance — even if that stance is an entirely uncontroversial statement like, “It was good and just to emancipate slaves even before it was legal.” As I wrote in my review (fair warning: that’s a very old and very bad review), it managed to imbue its tan cubes with some marginal fragment of the soul of those it tasked us with shepherding out of bondage.
But the process of critiquing a game, especially a game burdened with stances and arguments and historicity, is often better regarded as a journey than a last stand. When it came to my own review, two elements I had initially praised came to gnaw at me over successive plays, and the intervening years. At the time there was no vocabulary to express the core of my concern. The mechanics were sound; they produced tension and difficult choices. The theme was sound; after all, just look at the board and the cards and the struggle of liberation they represent.
Needless to say, I wasn’t separating setting and theme, let alone the concept that they might not be cohering into proper feedback.
As I see it, there are two blips on the radar, two feedback errors that fuzz Freedom’s message with unnecessary static. And the first is as minor as a component issue.
Here’s the deal. As an embodiment of emancipation, you gradually push cubes from the slaveholding south toward Canada. This process isn’t easy, burdened by any number of distractions, from crass fundraising to the remote requirements of legal emancipation. More immediate than either of those, however, are the slave catchers. Every time a slave concludes their move, you receive a trickle of fundraising dollars. And then, if that slave has stopped along a slave catcher’s route, the corresponding slave catcher catches wind and moves one space toward them. If ever a slave catcher comes into contact with a slave, it’s back to the plantation.
And these slave catchers are represented by colorful shapes.
Let me preempt the counterargument: yes, they’re coded for visibility and clarity, and yes, they’re total successes in this regard. As components devoid of any meaning beyond utility, there’s nothing wrong with them. But it isn’t long before their identity is subsumed by a color and a shape. That nearby slave catcher isn’t a mob preventing you from crossing from Ripley into Cincinnati; it’s a yellow triangle. That token preventing you from offloading from a ship into New York or Boston isn’t a crack team of federal mercenaries; it’s a brown square.
The trouble is, in a game bearing the title Freedom: The Underground Railroad, components cannot settle for being devoid of meaning beyond utility. These tokens are supposed to do more than frustrate the game’s movement puzzle. They should anger you, even infuriate you. They should be hard men with cruel expressions, or gleeful mobs, or some quisling constable regrettably carrying out a writ despite his personal qualms.
There’s nothing preventing the game from having it both ways. Those tokens could display both a slave catcher and a symbol for recalling which track they move along. In a game that goes out of its way to present its players with period images, even to the point of boldfaced “slaves for sale!” cards that would raise eyebrows at any convention, portraying its direct antagonists as shapes and colors does a disservice to the whole affair. Oh no! The shapes, the shapes!
In other words, it’s a component problem that bleeds over into a setting and theme problem. In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with the tokens. It’s only when we evaluate the way the game’s setting is expressed via components that the problem rears its head. In the intersection lies the failed connection.
That’s the first feedback error. The second is more subtle.
To quote the above paragraph from the rulebook, in case you’re a CAPTCHA robot incapable of parsing images, “You may wish to sacrifice a slave so that others may make their way towards freedom.”
Excuse me? I may wish to sacrifice a slave?
Look, there are conceivable circumstances in which a family of runaway slaves might be abandoned. Maybe there isn’t anything I can do to save them. Maybe we were forcibly separated. Maybe we were ambushed and we’re all running blind. Maybe there’s a notion of greater good I could buy into serving, and maybe, just maybe, there are situations where the recapture of some poor soul would serve its purposes. I’m no stranger to compromising my morals within the safety of a game-space.
But despite its zoomed-out perspective of the Union, this isn’t a game about running NORAD. We aren’t talking about strategic gains and tactical sacrifices. These are families. The downtrodden. Chattel with the will and courage to forcibly manumit themselves. That’s the fiction the game is selling. And when that’s your fiction, making them tradeable, qualifying them with mathematical value, one here exchanged for two there, well, that flies in the face of every moral argument the game is supposed to be making. On two levels, even. On the ground, this is a game about people who would never make such a trade. Harriet Tubman was known to mortally threaten members of her party desperate enough to want to return to the plantation, so firm were her convictions. Others believed they were enacting the will of God in freeing the shackled. This is not the place for waffling. That’s fair play in Pax Emancipation, a game about the competing interests undertaking the global anti-slavery movement. Here, not so much.
Which brings us to the game’s sky-high perspective, an acceptable concession to playability until it asks us to treat its fleeing slaves as tokens for barter. If the actual people involved with the Underground Railroad would never make such a trade — again, beyond immediate unavoidable circumstances such as an ambush, which is already simulated in the game via the slaver roll — then who exactly is making this trade? Who are we, the players? The game places us at odds with its own intentions.
In this instance, the feedback error comes from friction between a turn of phrase in the rules (the codified mechanics) and the behavior the game wants you to embrace. As before, reducing Freedom to mechanics and theme makes it difficult to locate the issue. It’s only when we arrange the game’s elements more clearly — and in particular when we examine the fissures where they should intersect cleanly — that the problem becomes apparent. This even leads to new avenues of inquiry for the design itself. For example, why not require players to do everything in their power to save a life, even to the point of making suboptimal moves, rather than offering the chance to trade someone back into servitude? Would this prove too burdensome? Or would it prompt players to do everything in their power to avoid such “sacrifices” at all costs? Or both?
At the same time, let’s not oversell those problems. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is still a laudable game. The goal of criticism isn’t merely to criticize; it’s also to help both the makers and recipients of an artifact better appreciate, understand, and hone their sense of craft and taste. By examining a game in terms of its feedback, it takes on a new life — flawed in some ways, but also more able to teach us about the game’s meaning. In Freedom’s case, player agency dictates that runaway slaves might be sacrificed, while the game’s fiction dictates that such a sacrifice should be unthinkable. A small thing, but small like a pebble in your shoe, liable to rub you raw if left unattended.
There you have it: feedback. Ephemeral glue. Emotional impact. The things our hobby’s critics often fail to describe, because there are no words for their expression. As always, the goal isn’t to realign everybody’s usage of common words. It’s to get those who are interested in evaluating games to think about them a bit more deeply. That is, after all, how we’ll save the world.
The next installment of Talking About Games is available right now on Patreon. For cheapskates, it will be available in a few weeks!