It’s been a while since we took a look at Zain Memon’s Shasn, a political game with both comedic and nasty streaks. At the time I called it “one of the most unhinged, perceptive, outlandish, and timely games you might never play.” One crowdfunding campaign, some development, and two whole years later, Shasn is finally here. Let’s see how it holds up in 2021.
Shasn is a game of two halves. How haphazardly those halves are bolted onto each other informs everything about it, for better and for worse.
Let’s start with the more boardgamey portion. The board shows a map of a fictional city, country, or maybe a futuristic Italy. Maybe a post-Brexit Britain. Maybe the good old United States of America. This abstraction is part of its universality, as we’ll see in a moment. Regardless of the geography’s specific confines, it features nine zones of varying sizes. There’s the central district that’s sort of isolated, big expanses of what one presumes are rural countryside, and little blips out on the fringes that aren’t exactly frontier but probably don’t qualify as swing states. The way these regions abut one another is important. Shasn — this half of it, anyway — is all about filling up the map with your voters. As soon as you reach a majority in a region, it’s locked down and its votes are yours. Once every district is similarly locked down, everybody tallies their votes and the leader becomes the next emperor or president or Brexit Boss.
Put like that, the whole thing might sound simplistic. At times, it almost is. One of my chief complaints with the preview version was that there wasn’t much reason to engage with the game’s many races. When I say certain areas don’t look like swing states, that isn’t limited to party bastions; Shasn’s entire geography is filled with zones that tend to vote for one color almost exclusively. As soon as one player achieves even a mid-sized lead in a district, there’s rarely a reason to bother to compete with them. Strengthening this status quo is the ability to gerrymander — effectively, to swap a voter between adjacent districts courtesy of a nearby majority. Why invest voters in a region if your opponent can just slip them out again?
Except Shasn is more than a straightforward area control game. It’s also a deeply cynical party game. Sort of.
By now you may have heard about Shasn’s more rambunctious half. If not, fair warning, this is the part that can come across as silly.
The gist is that every turn opens with a question. Picking one at random, “Do you support fully normalizing relations with Cuba?” Every question has two answers, which are also read aloud to the current player. In this case, “Yes, it gets stressful to keep smuggling in the cigars,” or “No, an ally of our enemies is our enemy.” Depending on which answer you select, you earn a few resources. These can be spent on voters or game-tweaking conspiracy cards. Your answer is also slotted beneath your board, where sets will eventually earn bonuses. Early on, you’ll gain some income. Later, you might forge political connections that let you trade resources for other resources, earn extra voters whenever you purchase a card, or bully voters into staying home entirely. Or evict them from their homes so they’re forced to resettle before they can vote.
Yeah, this is hardball.
There are four personalities to choose from, each aligned with a different type of answer and each voiced with their own measure of snark or sanctimony. The Capitalist, for example, is always gabbing about the value of things, and never shies away from an opportunity to commoditize something, whether land, ideas, or even bodies. On the other end of the spectrum lies the Idealist. This personality’s talking points are the most altruistic on paper, but they also reek of pie-in-the-sky thinking. That her final power is “tough love,” which transforms rival voters to your side outright, makes one wonder exactly how “tough” this “love” can get.
There’s an element of guesswork at play. Since it’s often more valuable to gain matching sets than spread your answers between personalities, it isn’t uncommon for someone to ask to hear a question and its answers more than once. This is most common when the answers include the Supremo (a Trumpian authoritarian) and the Showstopper (a Trumpian showboat). It almost goes without saying that there’s no such thing as a moderate, a negotiator, an altruist, or a bridge-builder. Only soundbites. That, of course, is the point. That your politicians are willing to say anything, tailoring every answer to a different audience, to get what they want. That everybody is exactly as bad as everybody else. That there’s no such thing as a good politician, maaan.
On one level, it’s exactly as facile as it sounds. The merger of Shasn’s two halves does little to elevate such a nihilistic message even as it deepens the gameplay. Politicians are bad, Shasn tells you, while containing literally zero legislation, platforms, parties or coalitions, economic concerns or unequal rights, or protest at the aforementioned — nothing but personalities and the words they speak. Politicians without politics. Or at least not beyond the call-and-response veneer found on the political issues cards. If you’re plumbing Shasn for deep meaning or political insight, I’ve seen some puddles that could just as well produce tuna.
To be clear, though, the gameplay does get more interesting. As it does, Shasn produces a very different level of meaning, albeit one that has very little to do with politics and more to do with tone, emotional manipulation, and some pitch-black humor.
Gameplay first. The problems I mentioned before never quite go away, but they are given a good wringing as the game progresses. The main shake-up is the bonus awarded by the personality cards. These things are powerful. There’s an obvious advantage to be found in the Idealist’s discount or the extra voters of the Showstopper, but it isn’t until each personality’s final level, unlocked once you collect a matching set of five cards, that the ball really gets rolling. For most of the game’s runtime, majorities are inviolable. When somebody locks down a district, their voters become as portable as cement girders when all you’ve got is a hand truck and some can-do spirit. Until you hit level five, anyway. Once there, every personality’s ability contains a parenthetical that notes “including majority voters.”
All of the sudden, you can move the immovable.
Cue an entire heap of drama. Busted majorities, secure districts suddenly in upheaval, turns that displace so many voters that you’re sure the active player is cheating until you strong-arm them into spelling out every action. It’s thrilling stuff, as though the first half’s dynamism had been placed on layaway and is now arriving tenfold. Of course, this dose of adrenaline comes far too late. The first half can be downright placid, especially when everybody is focused on their own corner of the country. But the energy is there. Knowing it’s there, you can prepare for it. There’s a reason the second play of Shasn tends to be more lively than the first.
That liveliness is also what makes Shasn more interesting than it first seems. It has everything to do with how the game switches up its tone.
Here’s what I mean. As I noted, Shasn is a game of two halves. The first half is an area control game. The second half is a party game. Both halves spark their own emotional responses. The first is dishwater, too straightforward for its own good, at least until that final act when everything turns haywire. Boring, in other words. The second is goofball, like a highlight reel of the dumbest political flubs of the year. Regardless of which deck you’re drawing from (I’ve played through five), there’s a certain airiness to the questions and their responses. Even issues that are serious enough to warrant a content warning will sometimes slap you upside the head with a zinger. Not every response stretches for yuks, and thank goodness for that. But every so often the brazenness of a response, the bald disregard for the public good, the wackadoodle dollar signs rolling from somebody’s tongue, will earn a genuine laugh.
That shift between one and the other, between dull politics and politics as fodder for our amusement, is where I’m convinced Shasn has something important to say after all. Rather than an indictment of politicians, the message is a finger pointed out of the box and at its players.
Here’s what I mean. Where I come from, most folks have a great deal of political pride but not much political literacy. I suspect that’s the case all over. For them, politics function as entertainment. Every gaffe becomes fodder. Every announcement is analyzed. Faces become caricatures. Party virtues are trumpeted. The other candidate probably drinks baby blood. Meanwhile, every piece of legislation, every redistricting, every school board meeting for setting the next year’s curriculum… not so much. That’s the boring stuff. Never mind that it’s what politics are for.
In Shasn, it doesn’t matter which personality cards you’re holding when the votes are tallied. The only thing that matters is the boring stuff. Districts. Majorities. Votes. The outcome of all that gerrymandering. At times, those dynamic personalities become distracting. Rather than always chasing a particular color, it can be beneficial to instead target one’s answers to the resources that will confer the most votes. This isn’t the “fun” part of the game. You want those flashy abilities more than a handful of early voters. But more than once, I’ve watched somebody focus so much on earning personality cards that they neglected their position on the map. They were operating as armchair politicians. They knew every zinger from their favorite political entertainment program, but couldn’t translate those witticisms into a successful election.
Is this a deliberate indictment of outraged but ineffectual voters? Is Memon aware that his game stabs at something more profound than some high schooler’s yawning bothsidesism? Is Shasn carefully manipulating my emotions to emphasize how distractable I am, how easily politics can be reduced to a chuckle — until the talk crosses some invisible boundary and becomes entirely serious?
No idea. I don’t really care. The best messages are actionable. “Politicians suck” may be apt, but it’s also superficial. “You need to participate in your political processes on a deeper level than getting upset” is an assessment I can remedy.
In any case, that’s where Shasn leads me. For all its straightforward appeal, it’s a tonally complex game, swerving between political comedy, political shabbiness, and political assholery. Lurking somewhere among those modes is the realization that too often we pay attention to the flashy stuff at the expense of genuine involvement.
A complimentary copy was provided.