Considering The Cost

I was going to title this article "$95+S&H," since that's how much The Cost costs on the BGG Store, but that seemed a little *too* inside-jokey.

Message games. There’s a loaded term. It’s a given that games can be more than “fun.” They can also be interesting, educational, enlightening, distressing; any number of things. But to hear some people talk, a game can do only one thing well. Either it will be good in the traditional sense — as a game, a plaything, no more thought running through its head than how to function as a toy — or it can carry a message. At which point it will be dour and lifeless, something to be experienced once and then consigned to a shelf to gather dust.

The Cost, designed by Armando Canales and co-authored by Lyndon Martin and Brian Willcutt, is a fistful of sand flung into the face of that assumption.

The countries are named after asbestos companies. I don't know what to make of that.

Welcome to Salmo, one of four countries in The Cost.

Here’s the bombshell: The Cost is about the asbestos industry. Unsurprisingly, its mere existence has sparked some minor outrage. Which, given that asbestos-related illnesses claim 39,000 lives every year in the United States alone, is a good reason for wariness. Some games tackle difficult topics by carefully framing their perspective. Players of Pax Pamir, for example, are Afghan chieftains struggling to weather a foreign incursion into their homeland. Freedom: The Underground Railroad is about abolitionists risking their lives to forcibly emancipate slaves. These games’ harsher moments are easy pills to swallow because their actors are underdogs, victims, or rebels against an abusive system.

The Cost doesn’t accept such a straightforward reading. Here you’re the serpent itself. As the head of an asbestos company, your only goal is the raw extraction of profits. Considerations such as safety regulations or protective equipment for your employees are only useful when they help you sidestep greater pitfalls. Sometimes those pitfalls are even desirable. By extension, sometimes a few workers are exactly the sacrifice the volcano of commerce demands.

Hence the burning question: can a game cast you as a prospective real-world villain and stay on safe footing? Even moral footing?

Right away, Canales is willing to stare that question in the face, keeping the human toll of the asbestos industry centered at all times. Depending on how many players are seated, the game takes place in two to four countries, all of them ready to purchase asbestos products. These maps are abstracted, but each has a distinctive geography: the open railways of Rutland and Salmo, the partitioned halves of the U.G.L., the isolated heartland of Pecora. Over the course of a surprisingly brisk four rounds, companies compete to invest in these countries by opening and operating mines and mills, controlling shipping via rail and boat, and keeping a jealous eye on their competitors.

Feels a bit gross to insert a joke here.

My company is healthy. My employees, less so.

We’ll look at the game’s broader concepts momentarily. For now, let’s look at its central conundrum.

First, asbestos. There are two ways to produce the stuff. Mines dredge raw fibers from the earth and then sell them to mills, where they’re refined into a form better suited to commercial application. Either raw or refined asbestos can be sold off-map in a pinch, but it’s the refined stuff that the game’s countries are hungry for. Each step of this process requires its own investments and offers its own payouts. Shipping raw asbestos to a mill pays out a dollar to every player-owned railway or port it crosses over, plus a tidy payday when the shipment is sold to the mill. Of course, you’ll first need to invest in each link of that supply chain, laying rails and opening ports, digging mines and erecting mills, and often competing to ensure that it’s your rails, mills, and everything else your competitors are forced to utilize.

Whenever asbestos is produced or refined, it’s necessary to pay for the work. Each country has their own currency, complete with subsidies and an exchange rate that fluctuates as companies invest there. This isn’t nearly as complicated as it sounds. If anything, Canales knows how to compress complicated ideas until they’re incredibly easy to understand, although all those moving parts are best witnessed firsthand. The gist is that your workers expect to be paid in their country’s currency. This prompts an element of planning ahead: you hope to build a mill in Pecora next round, but such a project will cost four pecos. It’s therefore necessary to plan your finances a full round in advance, ideally by nabbing some pecos while the exchange rate is still favorable.

(“Pecos” is my group’s term, by the way. Since the game doesn’t name the local currencies, we began to refer to them as pecos, uglies, salmonellas, and rutles.)

As mines and mills begin to appear, things get interesting. Asbestos production is always equal to how many workers you have stationed at a particular facility. So you want lots of workers, right? Well, sometimes. This is where The Cost asks its most important question, the one encapsulated in its title: how do you intend to pay to operate your factories? The “safe” option is to spend two units of local currency for every worker. Since you probably haven’t played the game, you’ll have to believe me when I say that’s a considerable pile of money. Even worse, because you’re paying for disposable protective equipment, that dollop of cash needs to be spent every single time you use that mine or mill.

What’s a billion-dollar corporation to do? You could shell out the cash, but who wants to do that? Alternatively, you could hire fewer workers, but that would also cut into your overall profits. Hey, here’s an idea: how about you pay nothing but life itself? One of your workers dies, but you still reap the rewards of his labor by amassing a shiny heap of asbestos ready for the market. There’s hardly any downside.

I'm sure some scold will tell me off for saying this, but we need illustrative games that are also joys to interact with. People learn best when they want to learn.

Along with its heavy themes, The Cost is eminently playable.

Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Appropriately so. Deceased workers linger on your company board for the duration of the game, little reminders that you valued mammon over man.

Still, somehow, against all odds, this doesn’t diminish the pleasure of engaging with The Cost as a functioning game. At one level, it scratches the itch of optimization, although any hopes of crafting a perfect engine are soon tangled with those of your competitors. This is because every one of The Cost’s systems is built around the idea of shared and competing incentives. The board for picking investments is a mishmash of possibilities that are soon blocked off by rival selections, spurring a miniature gold rush to claim useful clusters. Exchange rates plummet as additional companies express interest in a country and begin paying premiums for local currency. Infrastructure becomes entangled to gordian proportions, with opposing railways and ports quibbling over shipping privileges. Before long, even simple A-to-B shipments have transformed into winding routes that can profit everybody but yourself. It isn’t possible to haggle — if it were, the game’s duration might easily double — but there are methods for striking against ascendant corporations, whether depriving them of your own mined asbestos or challenging their natural monopolies.

This is truly thrilling stuff, whether you’re claiming routes, strangling a country’s logistics, lobbying until everybody is forced to use your ports, or carefully undermining a competitor’s investments by delivering a shipment of raw asbestos they can’t possibly mill safely. A well-executed turn is as tense and conniving as any battlefield maneuver. Yet none of that subtracts from the game’s incisiveness, because it all takes place within the larger picture of cumulative worker mortalities. Although companies don’t suffer direct repercussions from the casualties they permit, countries eventually wise up. At first the effect is negligible. That country’s market for asbestos products decreases. You can still mine and mill, provided you ship your products elsewhere. But tread carefully, because even the slightest extra nudge will see that country banning asbestos altogether.

Depending on how entrenched you’ve become in that country, such an event can be apocalyptic. Mines and mills are shuttered, rails gone to rust, ports closed, and the entire country board is flipped over. It’s possible to intentionally cause deaths to rob a rival of their asbestos stronghold, although such an act of espionage requires your own facilities and therefore your own measure of investment. As before, everything revolves around that entangled decision space. To the uninitiated or short-sighted, it’s rarely worthwhile to pay to keep your workers alive. But when you risk everything? Multiple rounds of infrastructure, carefully manicured routes that are as profitable as your asbestos sales, upgrades upon upgrades? That’ll give even the most cankered CEO pause.

But where else will we get our weird fiber minerals for insulation?!

As deaths accrue, countries first regulate and then ban asbestos.

In other words, The Cost doesn’t present its companies as evil, at least not in such simplistic terms, but as profoundly amoral. Human life doesn’t have value because of any natural- or god-given right, but because people sometimes get fed up and force the issue. It’s a commentary that manages to stretch beyond the confines of the game’s immediate framework in multiple ways.

Consider the absence of civilian life in the countries you enter. Surely they exist somewhere in between the factories and ports, but they’re tucked into the map’s folds precisely because they’re beyond your remit. Or, perhaps more accurately, beneath it. The game’s populations are only as important as the working hands they provide, fingers and limbs that can toil at the levers and pulleys of your factories.

Consider how workers don’t cost anything to hire, but instead flock to fill any available slot. This calls to mind the arguments that markets are self-regulating and workers are shrewd negotiators on their own behalf, dream logic that somehow overlooks desperation, hunger, and other obligations.

Consider how the dead linger on your company board. It would have been easy to invent some endgame rule. Perhaps, upon tallying profits, the most negligent company should find themselves buried in lawsuits and forfeit their position. An easy solution to perceived callousness, but also a cheap and dishonest solution, betraying both reality and the game’s willingness to confront the transgressions of its protagonists. If you can overlook that worker pawn you slid into his coffin, why shouldn’t an executive be able to overlook death’s numerical abstractions?

Consider the accumulation of costs, and how safely running a mine or mill not only requires that you pay for your living workers, but also those who have died. Is investing in safety ever worthwhile? Or is some degree of expiration acceptable, even expected? At what point do you throw your hands in the air and plunge this sunk cost to the bottom of the ocean?

Consider the inefficiency of your routes, passing through as many friendly railways as possible before arriving at its destination. Isn’t this the encapsulation of commerce gone the way of cronyism, touching hands for the sake of greasing palms, feeding itself for no other reason than to gorge?

"But one in four of these asbestos facilities is free of deaths! Thus your claim that asbestos is always dangerous is, categorically, untrue!"

The game’s moral message isn’t exactly unclear.

Make no mistake, this isn’t some casual gotcha, meant to pull back the curtain at the last moment and expose how you were the baddie all along. Rather, it’s an extended illustration of the almost cosmic amorality of profit-driven conglomerates. You were the baddie all along, but then again, you knew that all along, too. Neither does The Cost moralize. Instead, it’s deeply moral precisely because it offers its conundrum without belaboring its finer points until you’re sick of hearing its nasally voice. Here is the issue, here is your goal, and here are the reasons behind the choices you’ll make in the name of success. Games about war at least offer the placating guise of survival or honor or vanquishing fascism. The Cost doesn’t even offer such cold comfort.

That is, apart from the upswing of its gameplay. As I wrote earlier, The Cost offers its perspective without swapping in a message at the expense of its play. It’s rare in that regard, a lesson that’s worth sitting through not only for its rhetorical flourishes, but for the simple pleasure of outfoxing your competitors. This is what marks it as one of the year’s most important titles: as a game, as a cautionary tale, and as an example of how to do the latter without sacrificing the former. It’s moral without moralizing, enjoyable yet relevant, and intelligent both in part and in sum.

(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.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on September 23, 2020, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. Long time reader first time replier.

    First, that’s for this fantastic review which may be the one that tips me over to paying the cost for this box of cardboard.

    With that said however, it has left me a bit… Your last piece on criticism which used The Cost as an example in discussing morality, as a preamble for this review feels off. And the primary reason for that is Cards Against Humanity as the counter point.

    It just felt way too easy. Then going into this glowing review of The Cost, almost unfair. I don’t think you are planning a critical review of CAH anytime soon, yet there are so many games within your wheelhouse that while maybe not at the moral extreme of CAH in their nuance and perhaps blurring of the moral line would have made for more in depth discussion. Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t have used CAH as an example. With other examples it could be a good litmus. But as the only other example it sets up a dichotomy which necessitates equal treatment for balance.

    Who knows maybe you do have that CAH review queued up, or perhaps it will be addressed further in the next installment, but I felt compelled to share these feelings after reading this review.

    Now to go count the pennies it will cost to obtain The Cost.

    • Here’s the thing: the moral comparison between The Cost and Cards Against Humanity *was* easy! I wrote that piece specifically because of some early comments about The Cost, and I needed an unambiguous counterpoint. My goal was to be clearly delineative between portrayal and endorsement. There’s room for gray areas — for example, my essay on how Pax Pamir makes three arguments across two editions — but I didn’t want to muddy the waters while trying to explain the difference between spring water and brine. I intend to take a look at two very similar titles, and how subtle differences make one of them moral and the other not, sometime in the near future.

  2. ‪Well that was kind of effective, ordered it right away‬!

  3. Excellent review. I’m fascinated with the idea of combining the widely used “risk/reward” mechanic with mitigation and moral decision spaces. Having your lust for VP’s, tied up with tangible moral costs, makes for some seriously crunchy game play. Certainly, an under used concept in the cardboard world.

    Games like “The Cost” move to push gaming into another realm, one where active play can spur philosophical conversation and explore challenging subjects in the frame of their historical context. Again, putting yourself in the shoes of the “evil capitalist” in a rule set that does not gloss over the human costs in your drive towards profits, opens the mind towards exploring alternative economic principals.

    I’ve actually been kicking around a design for a similar games to the “The Cost” based upon off shore oil drilling for a few years. I was working on a way to include propaganda and legal mechanics into the game to help “cover up” disasters caused by greed. Maybe someday I will see it through.

  4. Thomas Romanelli

    I really enjoyed the way you presented your opinions by examine the nature of CAH and The Cost- it was very thought-provoking.

    As I had written elsewhere, I no longer play CAH because I ultimately recognized that it was a very insubstantial game, let alone one marred by some decidedly offensive content. Paradoxically, while I accept your word at face value that The Cost is superior in every way (and offers a gaming experience that seemingly avoids the uncomfortable content of CAH), I will likely never buy it.

    I disagree that The Cost is a “moral game”- it’s merely a candid simulation of economic efficiency that does not prioritize the value of human lives. Please forgive my ignorance because I haven’t played the game, but per the rules (which I have read) the goal is no different than other title from a myriad of genres: The player who ends the game with the most money wins. Is it possible to win with both the most money and the least fatalities? The section on game end scoring suggests it is:

    “However, the players should now take a look at the countries and their player boards. What happened? Is there really a “winner”? Has anyone produced no deaths while mining and milling? Did someone care to mine and mill safely?”

    Is it any surprise that a leader who makes decisions with potentially lethal consequences, but is simultaneously insulated from the harm of those consequences, will more likely than not view the subsequent casualties as “the cost of doing business”? Unfortunately, I think most of us have already recognized the normalization of this behavior across multiple industries. I don’t believe The Cost is telling me anything new in this regard, despite the solid gameplay that supports its inquisitive approach.

    I’m not quite sure how I would entice my gaming group to attempt this title, and I’m trying to think of the “elevator summary” I would deliver that would make them look forward to discovering The Cost’s gameplay. I do agree that this is an important game, in so far that it offers the potential for individuals to consider profound social issues and examine our attitudes about them. I would love to have you compare The Cost to other “edgy games” like Meltwater or Tomorrow.

    Great review! Thank you again.

    • It may be good to find an alternative for the adjective “moral”. That has a preachy connotation. It seems that this game is concerned with being explicit about, as well as investigating, immoral decisions. So it allows for, and I guess, stimulates, structural political reflection on its subject matter, while not taking up an explicit position about it, leaving that to the players.

      And of course the interesting question is not so much whether asbestos is good (it’s not) or whether the asbestos industry is good (it’s not). There are more interesting questions to think about. How come something we can all easily agree on to be bad could have been going on until, in fact, today in some places – how does that work?

      • “Moral” definitely has a preachy connotation! But I’m doing my darnedest to recenter it as an evaluative lens for critique. There is a very good chance I’ll fail in this regard, at which point I’ll be falling back on words like “honest.”

      • I can see why it would be good to have the possibility of a criticism that can address ethical issues. I just wonder if “moral” does the job, since ultimately that has to depend on your morals, which I might not share, even though we play the same game. However a game may have the power to force us to examine the morality of certain choice structures by making their operation explicit.

        Maybe such a game could be called “critical”? I mean in the sense of offering a critique of some political phenomenon by making explicit how under certain circumstances choices get made. That would also cover those chalk lines; the point of a critique is precisely to render those chalk lines that had become invisible again visible.

      • Ah, but the subjectivity of a moral critique is part of its appeal, in particular because all critiques are inherently subjective anyway! I may write about this sometime in the future, since we’re diving into schools of critique most people won’t have heard of.

      • Fair enough, and in any case I welcome any form of criticism that takes political, ethical and moral questions in gaming seriously!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Thomas!

      One point of clarification on my end — “moral” is sure an odd word, isn’t it? When talking about board games, there are so many that omit exactly what you mentioned, a degree of “candid speech” about their topics. Colonialism is often talked about as the prime offender, since it’s easy to see the chalk outlines where native or subaltern populations should have been. Over time, however, those omissions gradually become the norm, until even the chalk outlines are absent.

      Which is why I regard games like The Cost as moral. A less cantankerous word might be “honest.” Even though the game doesn’t batter us over the head like some morality play, it permits us to see the chalk outlines that most games omit.

      And I’ll gladly take your request into consideration! A comparison of edgy games might make for an interesting topic. I’ll have to kick around the idea and see what falls out.

      • Are you using “moral” as “has a moral argument about its topic” or “doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of its topic”? They’re not quite the same thing, and it seems a bit unclear.

      • I’m using it in the sense of moral criticism, a school of critique that asks whether a work’s purpose is worthy of its means.

      • I think another factor in board games and morality is that games are a space where a lot of morals are suspended. Werewolf would be very boring if we didn’t suspend the rule about not telling malicious lies during the game, for example.

      • True! But the same is true of many artistic works. When Johan Huizinga wrote about the magic circle, the principal application of his statements was for “play,” but not necessarily for games, and he compared his application to other cultural activities. We also understand the relevance of a magic circle when reading fiction, for example, where we can sympathize or even identify with characters or behaviors we would normally be repulsed by.

  5. Thomas Romanelli

    Emphasizing my previous disclaimer that I have not played the game but only read the rules, I didn’t have the impression that The Cost’s gameplay effectively triggers the kind of important questions about how universally harmful industries are tolerated for so long. What few questions are proposed are found in very limited game end scoring section, and the rhetorical question “Is there really a winner?” carries all the weight of an afterthought.

    I’m still thinking about how I would “sell” this experience to my gaming group (a group of medical professionals who are already pretty jaded about the industry they work within). An engaging, economic engine-builder with a sobering message might convince them to try it once, but I wonder how others might assess the replayability of The Cost.

    • I will say that The Cost has proved fantastically replayable for my group. It’s so player-driven, with so many intertangled incentives, that it really benefits from a handful of plays.

  6. Thomas Romanelli

    Sir, you have changed my mind. I believe I will seek out this game and see what unfolds from the experience. Thanks for that! 🖖

  7. Well, now I have played a few runs of The Cost. It’s a good game, plays fast, is surprisingly subtle in strategic and tactical possibilities – especially the action phase shows some nicely hidden depths.

    And I think I can see why you could call this a ‘moral’ game, maybe more than other qualifications. Indeed it forces you to consider moral questions about capitalism, reduced to questions about greed and efficacy and death.

    Politically, though, I’m not yet fully sure what the game is teaching us. I mean, it can also be ‘moral’ in that it teaches us something about what looks like a morally more clean form of capitalism. It invites you to find business methods that will actually win against the crude strategies that kill a lot for a quick buck; it invites you to consider what a sustainable (to use a very today word) business operation looks like.

    There’s a morality in it, but it also hides a lot. Because what will those sustainable operations entail? They are very likely to be focused on transport – so, a capitalism of supply networks and long-distance trade [blue politics in the game] rather than industrial capital’s siphoning off of labor-created surplus value [red politics]. Transport other parties’ deathly goods, and your hands are clean. Also, supplying this stuff to the ’emerging markets’ – that is, outsourcing deaths to developing countries – is made to look like the moral option. It helps develop them, right? Finally, the upshot of being a good asbestos producer rather than an evil one is that no country will ban asbestos, which feels a little awkward, too. That stuff should just plain out!

    In short, it seems to me that the game does not really have space for viable alternative politics, and the moral model feels much like greenwashing.

    I don’t want to hold that against the game though. Only a euro worker placement game where you actually see what might happen to your workers will let you ask questions like those in the first place. That’s an achievement, and it’s a great game to play, too.

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