The Future of Pax, the Future of Us
The Pax Series has always been a treasure trove for those who could spend their entire night clicking on blue words in Wikipedia. It might be the impact of Mormon timber on Mexican politics, Bukharan Jews upsetting the commercial balance of Afghanistan, Isabella of Castile’s nuptials unleashing her noted repressiveness, or how Immanuel Kant’s lofty ideals don’t ship much beef when it comes to the practical business of manumitting slaves. These are more than names on cards. They’re gameplay effects, watersheds, even inside jokes. History’s peculiarities as a box of toys, as a magnifying glass, as a polemic, as a gentle ribbing.
With Matt Eklund’s Pax Transhumanity trading the historical for the speculative, it seemed natural to ask whether it could retain its sense of wonder, reverence, and playfulness for the triumphs and foibles of the past. Turns out, there was no cause for doubt. The strengths of the series are not only present, but emphasized, resulting in one of the most important science-fiction board games ever crafted. And it has everything to do with how it uses those cards to tell unexpected — and even profound — stories about where our species might go from here.
Like the titles that came before it, one of Pax Transhumanity’s most significant strengths lies in its capacity for naming. If anything, that practice has never been more pronounced. In previous outings, cards were given particular names because their historical subjects actually bore them. This isn’t to say there weren’t decisions to be made. A particularly famous ruler of Wallachia could have been called Vlad III. Maybe even Dracula. Neither of those capture the horror of his more common epithet, Vlad the Impaler. Consider the power behind such a name. The first is too dry, the second too lurid. The third, though, is as terrifying as it is accurate. It has the effect of making one’s rectum pucker. With the right gameplay abilities, the name is given authority the way a glove is given a fist. In Pax Renaissance, Vlad is an inquisitor, executioner, and siege-master rolled into a single card. When he appears on the table, you can expect some impaling will be done. Within his sphere of influence, anyway.
Pax Transhumanity doesn’t have history to draw upon. It has theories. Hypothetical technologies. Social concepts. Draw any card at random and you’re presented with an idea that could be the topic of a white paper or the subject of a science fiction novel. In fine Pax fashion, these are more than snappy phrases. They’re market forces, business stimulants, global recessions waiting to happen. Examples are as easy to find as the bold text above each card’s illustration. Electronic Textiles can streamline corporate efficiency and prepare humanity for space travel, but might also integrate social controls directly into the garments you wear. Germline Alteration makes other biological advancements easy, but presents all sorts of ethical quandaries. Euthenics, not to be confused with its more guttural cousin, can solve social immobility. In fact, there’s a whole lot of solving going on. Want to solve famine? Look out for Vertical Farming. ID Theft? The Universal Biometric Database is your man. Mental health? Returning your deceased loved ones to virtual life will do the trick.
Wait, wasn’t there an episode of Black Mirror about how that very thing would be outrageously terrible? That’s the other important detail about Pax Transhumanity. Unlike nearly every other portrayal of day-after-tomorrow technology, its future isn’t guaranteed to be an unending horror show. Oh, there are perils aplenty. One of the game’s possible endings is the singularity, in which rapidly accelerating tech leaves baseline humanity behind with the treeshrews. But for the most part, its version of the future is brighter and better, akin to measuring today against the plague-ridden 14th century. The new day will bring new problems, but at least you don’t have feudal lords playing football with your skull or infected buboes crowding your genitals. It’s unrepentant in its optimism like that.
Then again, Pax being Pax, it takes significant familiarity with the rules before that vision grows sufficiently rosy.
Pax Transhumanity is the work of Matt Eklund, although those familiar with his father Phil’s work won’t be surprised to discover that the solution for every ill apparently stems from free enterprise. In this case, however, there’s also an element of activism at play. Unlike the jealous landowners, chieftains, and bankers of previous Paxii, here players are cast as bloggers, colonels, doctors, or simply concerned citizens. Regular people, in other words, albeit regular people with access to enormous quantities of investment money, justified as the result of your first patent. Where the series’ previous entry, Pax Emancipation, served to examine (and even undermine) the altruism of its actors, this is the closest it’s ever come to casting its players as “good.”
A common complaint with the Pax Series is that its market flows so rapidly that long-term planning becomes almost impossible. Surprisingly, Pax Transhumanity’s grassroots perspective also grounds its most stable marketplace yet.
The game revolves around four spheres, each representing a different think-space where you can uncover new ideas, employ exciting talent, and eventually commercialize technology to form companies, solve problems, and earn lucrative patents. At the outset of the game only two of these spheres are fully open. The First World doesn’t have many barriers — little stop signs that increase the cost of research or commercialization — but also offers fewer openings for employment or incorporation. The Developing World, meanwhile, has spades of barriers and problems, but these also provide additional opportunities. Even better, any work there is “subsidized” and therefore costs less. The final two spheres, the Cloud and Space, begin unexplored, but can blossom into fully functioning markets before too long.
What fills a market? Lots of idea cards. Unlike every entry in the series other than Pax Emancipation, these cards take a long time to go anywhere. In fact, they won’t be moving unless you force them out of place. Nearly everything comes down to how you manipulate them. This can involve loading them with your cubes, researching them out of existence or into private ownership, shifting them into entirely different spheres, or finally commercializing them into public use.
There’s a lot going on under the hood. Just to give you a taste, commercializing an idea requires a tricky combination of factors. The easy part is putting your cube on the card, and even that might require a variable cost or more than one cube. You’ll also need a worker to actually build your new invention; this worker can occupy a utility or barrier to reduce how much you’re paying, and in the process they’ll shift into a different slot, gradually moving into less desirable careers or even aging out of the sector entirely. Trickiest of all, the idea you’re commercializing needs to be viable. That means its pair of colors are already visible elsewhere, whether from previous inventions, patents, or a think-tank you’re funding.
Yikes! The point is, there are a lot of nouns and verbs firing off, sometimes in conjunction and sometimes at odds, and it takes a play or two to see how they all fit together. Even once you learn how the game’s processes function, the actual markets might leave you with scant opportunities. At its most stubborn, it can feel like a whole lot of trouble for some set collection.
But that’s like calling a vaccine a whole lot of trouble for some dead viruses. Although it’s easy to tell at a glance who owns a corporation or who’s solving each sphere’s problems, the ultimate prize is nothing short of our trajectory as a species. This is depicted by the human progress splay, a collection of the game’s successful ideas. Whenever you commercialize something, you choose which of its two colors will become visible. Over time these colors grow into a strand of cultural and technological DNA — and we’re speaking semi-literally, to the point that the letters for its four disciplines begin with A, C, G, and T. More nefariously, you can claim personal ownership over particular strands of this DNA, preventing other players from using the corresponding band of color when trying to commercialize their own ideas. These instances of “future shock” are akin to discouraging your Stone Age competitors from developing the wheel by recounting gory stories about chariot tramplings. Nobody’s going to adopt your Nootropics for daily usage when they’re still quivering over Big Pharma.
The human progress splay is also where Pax Transhumanity snaps into focus. The last three cards in the splay are the “cutting edge,” and together they inform what the next step in human evolution will look like. For example, the colors in the splay are usually all different; this keeps the game locked in Globalization. During a period of Globalization, the Developing World is king, funded by heavy subsidies, and no one sphere is considered more important than any other. But slot two blues into the cutting edge and now the Cloud is dominant. Thanks to the uncentralized nature of, well, crowdsourcing via everybody on the planet, research becomes free, computing patents are worth a heap of extra bitcoin, and Cloud-based companies and solved problems are worth extra points.
Weird stuff, in other words. But with the rules properly internalized, these subsystems come together to tell unexpected stories about humanity’s future. There’s that time a rival piggybacked on my syndicated idea in order to obtain patents of his own, or when a tycoon was deprived of her victory by a last-minute upstart undertaking a hostile takeover of her Big Brother corporation. In one dire conclusion, humanity’s independence was shed in favor of a hivemind singularity. Fortunately, my doctor had commercialized enough ideas in the group dynamics tree to position himself as a first among equals.
Just as the other entries in the Pax Series used their cards to tell multiple small stories — stories which, when woven together, provided texture to the grand tapestry of history — Pax Transhumanity does the same with its cards and its stories. Only this time, its tale is that of future-history.
It’s been said that science fiction isn’t really about the future, but the present. In that regard, the fierce optimism of Pax Transhumanity is an even greater oddity. Sol: Last Days of a Star felt timely, with its impending burnout and solutions that only hastened the immolation, reminiscent of increasingly desperate projections for global climate change. In Pax Transhumanity, climate change is solved with the chipper shortness of a microwave ding. Biophytolytic Algae can do it, and provides an extra worker as a bonus. Even the paradigm shift of an Externalities Philosophy is enough.
Don’t mistake this for naïvety. It’s the optimism that made Star Trek influential. This is the positive outlook of someone on the brink, hands clenched into weathered fists and mouth drawn into a hard smile. Star Trek was empowering because its humanist message promised that we could do more together than apart. Pax Transhumanity is niche compared to Roddenberry’s vision, but the pose it strikes is similarly determined. It reminds us that the same mammalian cleverness that obsoleted smallpox and set foot upon the moon and harnessed the atom can also rise to face this generation’s challenges.
Pax Transhumanity hands over a species in transition and asks for nothing less than the reshaping of our destiny. If we’re transformed in the process, it won’t be the first time. Consider the wheel, agriculture, printing presses, steam power, and vaccines. Although we are the same, we were not left unaltered by the advances of yesteryear. Look at where we are compared to a century ago: half-cyborg, impossibly connected, and surrounded by technology. Because that’s the other thing about science fiction: even while it’s telling us about the present, sometimes it also shapes the future.