The Future of Pax, the Future of Us

We have bred rodents that wear hats! The singularity is both better than and not quite as thrilling as anticipated.

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.

Cashless economics? I'm already good at that! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHHHHAHHHHHHH.

Four ideas.

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.

As in, you'll be very poor very much of the time.

Finances will be familiar to those who played Pax Emancipation.

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.”

I love how the "aging" problem in the First World doesn't necessarily mean "getting old," but rather "an entire generation being forced to care for their cadaverous parents."

Spheres, their problems, and the workers trying to solve them.

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.

Don't make a singularity. That's as close as this game gets to a "bad" ending.

Does this look important? Because this is important.

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.

Which if you think about it is super weird in a game about a swift acceleration of tech, but m'kay.

Pax Transhumanity has the most dynamic market of any of the Pax games — and the most stable.

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.

HUMAN-MACHINE WAR, the game notes — as an optional resolution. Guys, call me crazy, but that seems like a very crucial thing to resolve.

Ideas and consequences. Or at least the perception of them.

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.


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Posted on December 16, 2019, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Always a joy when one’s favorite critic writes on one’s favorite board game series. You’re spot-on about the naming; I’ve always felt the Pax series is a storytelling engine, and here the nomenclature greases the gears. Even the surge arrows have names!

    I’m currently in the midst of writing a paper exploring abstraction in Transhumanity, particularly focused on the liquid nature of the agent cubes: today an employee, tomorrow capital, and a patent the next day. Transhumanity is a wondrous game because it asks you to take your imagination seriously.

  2. Jesús Couto Fandiño

    Ok… so… I may end up buying it. Hell, I’m having a hard time not clicking buy right now.

    I’m not going to lie, this looks to be 100% something I like. But… I’m also a bit worried, because even if it is his son, this has a bit of … Eklundianism? in it. Eklund’s takes about history and stuff are controversial to say the least, and the only reason I was not hitting “BUY” right away was that the game description made it sound a bit like “and now we are going to school all those that are WRONG about the world today with more of our truth”

    On the other hand, I’m also very much an absolute science fiction fan, I’d love to explore the posibilites that the game seems to imply in the creation of a future civilization, and I’m also not much of a fan of doomsayers (nothing to do, we are toast) vs people proposing alternatives. Although a lot of the time what you get now is people saying that the doomsayers should shut up demanding actual work on alternatives because it will all fix itself by “the wonders of the market”…

    And all of that sounds like a lot of politics which may or not interest anybody else, or in fact repulse them, or spill out of the table, or… While I just want a nice game of science fiction society building.

    Anyway. Decided, I’m going to explore it. Even if my exploration party has some reservations 🙂

    • Totally agree, although in this case I’d argue the game is very much on the side of “do something” optimism. It’s always beneficial to separate the footnotes from the playspace, especially in sandbox games like the Pax Series where the argument can journey in many different directions. In a way, Pax Transhumanity’s fiction can be interpreted as the “wonders of the market,” spurred by relatively altruistic actors, actually getting down to the business of solving the world’s problems. It’s as though the game’s blogger and doctor one day decided to hijack capitalism for the sake of saving humanity. Because, hey, those foamed metals and nanobots aren’t going to pay for themselves!

  3. As a counterpoint, I didn’t have this experience with the game at all. I felt like I was trying to match colors. All the problems in the world seemed so interchangeable, the technologies did nothing different except have a different color and it was all just a slow set collection slog. I never saw any kind of story being told.

    I think this takes the abstraction a bit too far. Yes, things are named, but it really fell pretty flat for me.

    • I’m sorry to hear that, Fabian! I’ve found that lending some soft narration to my actions always helps a Pax game come alive. “One more group dynamics tech and we’re getting a hivemind singularity,” rather than “Hey, we’re almost at five greens” makes a world of difference within my group.

      • I don’t know, I didn’t have any of these problems with the other Pax games, I’m a big fan of them. I think they went downhill for me when Pax Emancipation introduced the new market mechanic. not having my own real tableau just feels so impersonal.

      • I still appreciate aspects of Pax Emancipation, but it was certainly the low point of the series for me. I was wary of the market system here, but it comes across as far more engaging. From what I understand, this iteration of the market system was first developed for PaxTrans and then utilized for PaxEman? Maybe that’s why it feels like a better fit.

  4. OK Colour me intrigued by this game. Having recently completed Harari’s Homo Deus it seems to mine a timely furrow and it will be interesting to elevate or expand my own thinking on our possible future given the pall of doom that has recently been amplified by the Tories continuing ascendancy. I do have to question whether this game, and by proxy the series as a whole (as, at a glance Pax Renaissance also looks pretty intriguing) has an undue focus on Free Market ideology as a solution to our myriad woes? Does it have a *shudder* Rand-ian bent at all? Cos that’s a pretty big deal-breaker.

    • The series has its roots in free market antics, although its sandbox is broad enough that it often comes across as an examination rather than advocacy. Pax Renaissance, for example, casts its players as banking houses. But it manages to touch upon so many possible answers to the whole “Why did Europe suddenly leap forward into the pre-modern age?” question that reducing it to capital alone is simplistic. Same with Pax Transhumanity. The characters are investors and entrepreneurs, likely because those are the people most likely to direct the development of the technologies it’s exploring.

      But if you’re perturbed by libertarians, avoid the footnotes.

    • I find this game kind of intriguing, and I think it’s trying to do part of something interesting. Put part of what’s doing is absolutely trying to foist libertarian propaganda off on us. I find the other games in the series – even the incredibly problematic Pax Emancipation – to be generally on the ok side. Phil and Matt’s libertarianism is clearly baked into the games, but some weird free-market hellscape isn’t the inevitable result (in Pax Emancipation for example, you can get perfectly reasonable Enlightenments driven by religious inquiry or political freedom and the game doesn’t have a built-in preference for absolute freedom for rapacious capitalists. In Bios: Origins, you’ve got the same religion/politics/industry split and while industry is clearly what Phil’s trying to sell you on it doesn’t feel that weird because all 3 are important in the game). But Pax Emancipation is free market hellscape all the way down. The saving grace I think is that it’s so up-front about its radical libertarianism that one can only laugh at many of the technologies it includes.

      One of the more interesting ways to think about Pax Transhumanity is to understand that it’s really Atlas Shrugged: The Game. Whatever you think of Rand’s “philosophy” (and all right-thinking people should recognize it as a fraud), her books have the crippling flaw of just being boring because they lack real conflict. Everyone in her universe recognizes the superiority of the “true capitalists” and bows to their authority, so there is no competition or recognizable market in Galt’s Gulch. True capitalists just wave their hands and solve problems in clear violation of the laws of physics. There are never consequences for true capitalists, other than to be persecuted by lesser people. While Pax Transhumanity isn’t as totally drama or consequence free as it’s source material, it doesn’t have a lot of either and in many ways has the same bloated and anodyne feel. It’s process-heavy in a way that can be kind of fun, but it’s a world where the ideas the true capitalists have are always right and never fail.

  5. “The Pax Series has always been a treasure trove for those who could spend their entire night clicking on blue words in Wikipedia.”

    Damn, you got me pegged.

    PaxRen is one of my all-time favorites, but I can’t get too excited about this one. I think the series needs that historical anchor to keep the abstraction in check. “What do you do in this game?” “You are a Renaissance banker/Mexican landowner/Afghan tribal leader.”

    • I suspect many people will agree. That’s the very thing that brought me into the series, after all. In this case, though, the Eklunds happened to land upon another of my direct interests — before I went into history, I was studying to become a bioethicist!

  6. I had already earmarked this when I first read about it previewing at Essen last year, so am very glad to know my gut instinct is still working on all cylinders even now… Lol

  7. My first play-through with my partner last night was rather disappointing. Thematically, multiple things don’t make sense. Tycoon win? So the bright future is one of monopolies? Doesn’t make any sense. My partner focused on solving the most difficult problems (climate change, pollution, etc.) and solved 5 or 6 of them but, in the end, I won because the dominant sphere was the first world and none of us had points in the first world or in our respective hidden spheres; it was a tie and I had more capital, so I won (with only having solved 2 cloud problems). It felt very unfair. It doesn’t feel like an imagination of an alternative bright future; it feels more like a projection of the present into the future, continuation of the current trajectory, without any reflection of all the downsides such a continuation has (externalities, exploitation of natural resources, etc.).

    • Oh man, if that ending seems depressing, just wait until the singularity!

      Sorry to hear your first play didn’t work out for you. I hope you’ll give it another try. My group has been regularly replaying on Tabletop Simulator, and it’s remarkable how much different it feels with the rules internalized. We’ve had hopeful futures and bleak futures. Either way, they’ve been evocative futures.

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