Considering The Cost
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
A complimentary copy was provided.