No Dadbod Without Me
Dan Bullock’s No Motherland Without is unflinching. Casting its players as either the Kim dynasty of the inaptly-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or the amalgamous West, it directs your gaze into the cankered soul of evil and refuses to look away.
It’s also the reddest game ever. No, really. This thing is so red it scorches the eyes.
Conflict simulations inhabit a different sphere from most board games. That’s apparent within the first moments of setting up No Motherland Without. Everything about it is harsh. The redness, of course. Its board could serve as a figurative warning that what you’re about to engage in will be entirely unpleasant. But also the smallness of its counters. The utility of the icons. The text that announces DEFECTOR MAP and RATIONS and BALLISTIC MISSILE RESEARCH. Where most games seek to be inoffensive as a principal virtue, Bullock heads the other way. The goal is to inform and agitate.
Well. Consider me informed and agitated. In the sweaty realm of conflict simulations that depict national and global policies inflicting incalculable harm to individuals, No Motherland Without ranks among the best of them.
Which is saying a lot for a title that leans so heavily on the usual trappings of card-driven games. To get it out of the way now, very little about the gameplay is going to spawn imitators. This system’s most popular expression is found in Twilight Struggle. We both draw a hand of cards showing events that align with one side or the other. We can play any card to undertake generic activities. More on those momentarily. We can also play events. If we happen to play an opposing event, our rival gets to activate it before we’re allowed to use its activity points. Cue the usual procession of difficult decisions, especially once we realize that certain events can be thrown out. Or, even better, used at the exact moment it won’t advantage our rival.
No Motherland Without uses this system to anchor two further ideas. The first is that certain events stick around longer than the span of a single play. Legacy events are ongoing, offering additional actions or permanent adjustments to how the game is played. Enduring events, meanwhile, are more conflict-oriented, added to a “conveyor belt” of three cards. As long as the event remains on the track, it’s in play. The instant it slides off, its effect disappears. These are a strong feature. Far from offering obvious plays, it’s often tempting to wait just a moment longer to play an enduring event. Every round is about maximizing the events in your favor while minimizing those that weigh against you, but there’s some extra bite to consider when your opponent might follow up your enduring event with one of their own. So much for that Buffer Year. Now it’s more of a buffer three quarters.
The game’s other big idea is that everything is measured according to four tug-of-wars. The largest and most complex is found on the main map, where North Korea seeks to rebuild her infrastructure in the wake of the Korean War, while the West imposes “outages” — sanctions with tangible consequences, really — to block those construction projects. At the same time, both are jockeying for global opinion and to manipulate the DRPK’s level of prestige. The last one, where much of the game’s inhumanity is centered, is the Defector Map.
It isn’t uncommon to see strategic- and tactical-level conflict simulations that place atrocity somewhere beyond the periphery of their intended scope. I’ve even argued that in thoughtful circumstances this can be an acceptable compromise when modeling complex situations. Train games without labor. War without internment. Colonialism without colonialism.
Bullock refuses to compromise. Instead, he’s taken the usual omissions, wrung out their putrid essences, and distilled them to concentrate.
Here’s how defection works. Over the course of the game, the West has access to two actions meant to erode the power base of the Kim Dynasty. First, they can establish defector routes from North Korea into China, and from there southward across Thailand or Vietnam into territory where an escapee will be liberated to South Korea. With these routes established, the West can encourage defections. Moving a defector across all those kilometers is a lengthy and expensive proposition. If the defector travels across the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, their survival is unlikely. Perhaps worse, there’s very little preventing the DRPK from arresting any defector en route.
This is the most individual of the Kim dynasty’s many human rights offenses depicted in No Motherland Without. Upon arrest, defector tokens are replaced with iron bars representing their ongoing imprisonment, where they inhabit the game’s “generation map” alongside elites, dissidents, and the deceased. It’s a stark image, all those faces alongside one another, their fates determined with a garish red token. If those tokens weren’t found everywhere in the game, I’d wonder if they were meant to evoke a party official’s stamp. Persona non grata. Someone only useful inasmuch as they’re here behind bars rather than there across the DMZ.
Another fine touch is the fate of the DRPK’s party elites. At the conclusion of each round, North Korea must pass a check. If their infrastructure meets a particular threshold, their global prestige remains intact. If not, it plummets, taking them one step closer to total collapse and victory for the West. Elites are an important component of these checks. Each one adds its value to the current state of the nation’s infrastructure. The country’s populace might be more beholden to the black market than legitimate commerce, but at least you have a few cushy politicians to show off.
Except there’s a problem. Elites become complacent with age. As the Kim dynasty transitions from one leader to the next, the previous president’s elites aren’t quite as useful as a fresh crop. What’s a dear leader to do? Pop them in the back of the head and elevate somebody in their place, of course. It’s a stern measure, but it illustrates the corrupting nature of cults of personality. One is only as useful as their proximity to the current ruler, no matter how invaluable they may have been last year. It’s a sobering act, but it fits well with a regime whose primary goal is to terrorize the world by successfully testing nuclear weapons.
So let’s talk about those missile tests and what they tell us about No Motherland Without’s worldview.
Over the course of the game, the DRPK player has the option to bank cards for ballistic missile research. This isn’t an easy choice. There needs to be enough infrastructure to properly bank the card, which is consumed entirely. Worse, that card has to be something the DRPK could have used — there’s no using research as a dumping ground for Western events, à la Twilight Struggle’s space race. In the game’s back half, certain cards will trigger a missile test. If the DRPK has invested enough cards, their test succeeds. Their prestige increases, although global opinion shifts against them. If they manage to raise their prestige to its maximum level and conduct another missile test, they win outright.
It’s a tense race, subject to interference from the West, careful timing of card plays, and any number of complicating factors on both sides. Of course, it has nothing to do with the citizenry of North Korea.
One of the perils of postmodern thought is that it’s all too easy to say that both sides are to blame. Certainly, No Motherland Without is clear that its version of the West isn’t all baseball and Gangnam Districts. To the West, defectors are pawns. Even high-value dissidents are, well, highly valuable to the West’s end-game score, should it come to that. Plenty of events paint the West as self-interested, conniving, and willing to trade lives for the sake of policy.
To the DRPK’s way of thinking, what matters is its missile program. Its own people are better imprisoned than set free. Even its elites are only temporarily elevated before they’re discarded. At least the West, in all its self-interest, hopes to respond to a human rights crisis with liberation rather than annihilation. If the entire population of North Korea is reduced to bondage and death, the game ends in a draw. Players don’t even get the satisfaction of scoring. Why? Because the ultimate endpoint of North Korea’s policies is such a human rights disaster that nobody benefits.
Again, the point isn’t that one side is better than the other, although I’d argue that any rational mind would have to concede the point. One of last year’s best titles, Versailles 1919, accomplished much by humanizing its actors, bigwigs and cameos alike. It’s important to see a person’s face. Far harder to discard a face than a number.
In No Motherland Without, Bullock does the same with the generation map. Every action takes on moral weight. At one point as the West, I held an event that could inflict starvation on North Korea. As meals got lighter, I would receive free movement points to future defections. Yet I was struck at this collision of policy and the individual. If leaner meals meant more people escaped, then decreased rations were a good thing for the same people who would starve — weren’t they? Or was policy-based thinking clouding my judgement? This seemed to be Bullock’s thesis. That when one side has determined to ignore the needs of its people entirely, there is no solution that goes down easy.
I played the event. And couldn’t look at the generation map for a few minutes afterward.
A complimentary copy was provided.