The Ungovernable Stonewall Uprising

I feel like I just walked into a Skittles commercial that's capitalizing on Pride Month.

This past August, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spoke to the assembled faculty of Brigham Young University to call for both the building and the defense of that institution. His twin metaphors were a trowel and a musket; the topic, same-sex marriage. There’s been much hubbub over what he “really meant.” Such a discussion will always be academic, inherently disconnected from how his words were actually received by their countless recipients. Within hours of that talk, I sat by the bedside of a fourteen-year-old girl. She hid her freshly scarred forearms from view. She asked me why God hated her. Why God had made her this way if only to hate her. Why that kindly apostle hated her. Why she hated herself.

Hate is not an easy topic for a board game. Nor, really, is love. With Stonewall Uprising, designer Taylor Shuss takes a chance by asking his players to embody both of them. One player becomes Pride, determined to carve out equal rights in a land that has always promised big and fallen short. The second player becomes The Man. The Man is there to hate. To hate and to take and to demoralize. It’s exhausting to play as The Man. Exhausting but essential.

* to scale

The public discourse.

Before we talk about those roles, let’s set the scene.

Opening in the 1960s, Stonewall Uprising covers three decades in the fight for gay civil rights, tracing a line from trailblazing figures like Harry Hay and Frank Kameny to pride parades and the AIDS epidemic alike.

Stonewall Uprising is also a deck-building game. On the surface it’s entirely familiar, the fundamentals of deck-building having been transmitted faithfully across the years from Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion. Both players begin with a starting deck of cards. Those decks soon take on a life of their own, growing more powerful or brittle, effective or over-packed. Sometimes all those things at once. It isn’t long before their effects touch the board, and your opponent, in increasingly potent ways. An outcome that might have initially required four or five plays to achieve suddenly takes two. Eventually, one. There are effects for gaining new cards, winnowing the chaff from your deck, or disrupting an opponent’s hand. You get the sense that you’ve done this before.

This familiarity produces a stirring effect. Here, cards are used to move wooden cubes back and forth along three tracks. Each of these tracks represents a sphere of argument between Pride and The Man, covering the systemic abuses and permissions of law, the fickle attentions of public opinion, and the staunchness of individual support. Turn after turn, you’ll play a card to move a cube toward your side of a track. Then your opponent does the same, sliding a cube in their direction. Often, their move will invalidate the one you just made. Gains are readily reversed. When you successfully slide a cube into a track’s end zone, you gain some reward, a step toward ultimate victory, only to watch as the cube is reset back to the middle of the track. Somewhere along the way, a niggling despondency settles in. Is this all there is? This teeter-totter of clashing opinions? Marginal gains that embolden and energize one’s opposition to lash out, which in turn emboldens and energizes us?

Games could be said to enshrine repetition. They ask us to take the same actions over and over, often with a careful degree of refinement. Often, successful play is about out-honing your opponent rather than truly outmaneuvering them. In this view, games are repetition. On the rare occasion that they wander afield from where they began, they become different games entirely.

Stonewall Uprising is wholly aware of this truism. More than that, it embraces it. It proposes that it’s not only games that embody repetition, but social justice and oppression alike. These are not novel concepts. They are as old as hierarchies, as old as one person declaring themself better than someone else for some made-up reason or another, and just as steadily reinforced or eroded. Shuss suffuses his repetition with either nobility or banality. The difference lies in whether one pushes the stone uphill or rolls it down to crash upon the bodies below.

My other impression: I don't like card sleeves.

Courage embodied.

First, the nobility.

For Pride, victory is about challenging norms and changing perspectives. When the game opens, a cube sits at the far end of the Overton Window. For those who haven’t studied political discourse, this represents the range of policies that can be considered acceptable by a population. At the outset, the population of the United States can’t even conceptualize equal rights for gay people. To make the unthinkable thinkable, Pride faces an uphill battle. There are two steps, taken in tandem: first, swing the Overton Window toward acceptance of gay rights, then gain and roll dice symbolizing the vibrancy, energy, and unison behind the gay civil rights movement. The trick is that you’re never entirely sure where your dice will land, presenting an ever-shifting goalpost that will prove all too familiar for anyone who’s studied the history of civil rights in the U.S.

Oh, and it doesn’t help that The Man is always beating you down.

Nearly every time I’ve discussed Stonewall Uprising, somebody has noted their discomfort at the prospect of playing The Man. That theoretical discomfort is a sliver compared to the amputated limb of actually adopting the role. Pride asks its player to build bridges, to educate, to expand a nation’s sphere of empathy, to endure for truer equality.

By contrast, The Man is a coward. Early on, his tools are little more than sniveling protestations. There’s a war on. People are comfortable. Why make a ruckus? These are delaying actions, as Shuss is careful to note in the rulebook. There’s no provision for actual victory here, only delay, only setbacks and cruelty. This becomes ever more apparent as passing decades introduce new systems. When the ’70s roll around, Pride begins to respond to The Man’s efforts more directly, filling their card market with “retaliation dice.” When The Man purchases the afflicted card, Pride gains that die, galvanizing as they suffer state abuses. Those abuses are made manifest by The Man in the form of law tokens. These litter the tracks, acting as miniature landmines that detain Pride cards. Eventually, detained cards can be demoralized, permanently removing them from the game and nudging The Man closer to his not-quite victory.

As you might expect, it’s deeply unpleasant to play as The Man. The membrane between the components on the table and the people above it has rarely been so thin, and Stonewall Uprising goes to great lengths to pierce that boundary. Where Pride’s cards are warmly illustrated, The Man’s are dingy and cold and shot through with spittle-flecked faces furious at the prospect of having to show empathy toward another human. Where Pride builds a coalition, The Man beats down its opposition until they’re too tired to ask for dignity. Eventually, when the AIDS epidemic appears in the ’80s, it’s Pride that rallies around the suffering of its community. The Man gloats. The Man revels. As thousands wither to nothing, The Man says, with all the sneer of a schoolyard bully, “See? I told you so.”

You are not helpless. They just want you to feel that way.

The Man operates via gradual demoralization. Sound familiar?

I’m sure there’s somebody reading this right now who doesn’t like how these sides are portrayed. Maybe it strikes you as unfair. Maybe it seems too caricatured. The people opposing gay rights had a reason, didn’t they? It was a different time, wasn’t it? Isn’t Stonewall Uprising reducing complex, nuanced people to one group’s perspective?

Yes. It is indeed. And it couldn’t be more appropriate.

The first time one of my students asked me about sexuality came as a total shock. It was in church. I was her Sunday School teacher. When she stayed after class, I was slightly irritated because I wanted to get home for lunch. Then she asked if God hated her because she was attracted to other girls. She was afraid, she said, because her father had once shouted that he would get his gun and kill as many faggots as possible if the church ever permitted gay marriage.

I know that man. Her father. I liked him once. I can’t bring myself to like him any longer. All I see is the squirming hateful thing that terrified his own daughter with threats of rampage and murder. That man is The Man, and he has no better tools than the hammer, no better persuasion than terrorism. Shakespeare’s Antony may have been playing to the crowd when he noted, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” but he had struck upon something true. There’s room in history for nuance. Sometimes, though, hate is hot enough and black enough that it tars out the good.

Here at Space-Biff!, we often talk about the range of emotions a board game can effectively prompt. Stonewall Uprising offers a stiff challenge by asking its players to explore not only the nobility of its activists, but also the ugliness of its antagonists. The task of the gay civil rights movement, or any movement for greater inclusivity, freedom, and equality, is ultimately about expanding our empathy. In this case, that expansion requires us to witness the consequences of a thinking mind — a human mind, not a spreadsheet or solitaire mode — as it works to delay or demolish the empathy under reconstruction. Was that televangelist a good dad when he wasn’t shouting bile into a microphone? Were the puppets of the ex-gay movement motivated out of genuine concern for their fellow gay people? It doesn’t matter. Shuss has stated that games like This Guilty Land helped inspire Stonewall Uprising. That’s apparent throughout the design. Stonewall Uprising tells its story without compromise. It doesn’t pretend that its villains should receive the benefit of the doubt. They did evil. That evil lives after them. Maybe by play-acting that evil, by witnessing its pettiness, its desperation, its scouring fear, the result will prove emetic.

I love how "War Abroad" pretty much sticks in The Man's deck the whole game. Like, when are we not using "The War" to tell people they can't focus on something important at home?

Calling a spade a spade.

It has for me, at least, if only as a reminder. When I visited that fourteen-year-old with the scars on her arms, we talked at length about what had landed her there. About the things that made her feel so hated. The systems, the people. The church leader, so comfortably perched above the consequences of his ugly and careless metaphor. She asked a question. One of the most important questions.

Why do we stay?

Stay alive, she meant. But it could be anything. Why do we stay alive? Why do we stay in this country? In this church? In this community? Why do we keep sliding these cubes along these tracks? Why do we keep pressing forward along this inconclusive footing? Why do we push the stone up the hill? It will roll back down. We know it will. We’ve seen it before. We’ve seen it this past week.

Stonewall Uprising doesn’t offer the trite answer. Strictly speaking, it doesn’t answer at all. It’s far too risky for that. Risky and bold. Instead, it enshrines the staying. It makes repetition into an act of courage in the face of sheer banality. It harbors no lost love for those who will kick the stones back down. There’s no courage in the kicking, no strength in letting gravity do the work. Its heroes are the ones pressing upward. It cheers when you lay your hands against the grit, shoulder too, your cheek when you’re too tired for anything else, and—

And push.


(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 prototype copy was provided. I suspect temporarily. It’s Shuss’s personal copy, so I’d feel bad keeping it.

Posted on June 27, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 31 Comments.

  1. “Why do we stay” is indeed getting harder and harder to answer in this country. I think we have to keep following that feeling in our gut that tells us we’re on the right side, and that eventually things will come to be where they’re supposed to be. Thanks for this review Dan, and for all the great work that you do in this space.

    • Agreed. It’s a hard question. A terrifically hard question. And the answer won’t be the same for everyone. But I hold out hope. They don’t get to take that from us if we don’t let them.

  2. R. Ben Madison

    That was one epic review. Bravo — to you and the designer!

  3. I wonder at what point a designer decides on balance for a game like this. Being objective, not thinking about theme, you’d want the two sides to be fairly evenly matched. And yet, being subjective, I’d want the Pride side’s deck and options to be weighted a little stronger, so they DO win more often, just for that peace of mind at the end of a game. Especially as this is just as relevant in current days as it was at Stonewall itself. But how much weighting does one give before the game is no longer effective as a “game”?

    • That’s a great question, Adam, and it’s one I suspect each designer will have to answer for themself. In the case of Stonewall Uprising, I appreciate that Shuss makes it clear that The Man’s victory isn’t a victory at all. Maybe that gives him more latitude to make the game internally balanced?

  4. Christian van Someren

    Excellent review, and it seems all to relevant at the moment…

  5. We must, we must;

    We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

  6. Few board game critics can write essays that bring me to tears.

    Thank you, Dan.

  7. I feel like it is an interesting design choice to force someone to play The Man, as opposed to allowing it to be played by a bot.

    I’m open to games that put us into a negative role and then make us feel uncomfortable and reckon with our own transgressions, whether we’ve perpetrated them directly ourselves or indirectly via our heritage, culture, or ambivalence, as a way to better understand the impact of the associated decisions. However, this seems particularly horrific and torturous.

    Do you feel the requirement that someone play as The Man is central to the game’s arguments?

    • Personally, yes. But I believe the Kickstarter campaign (which launched today) has an option for a solo deck that plays as The Man.

    • Tor Iver Wilhelmsen

      The GMT title Labyrinth has the same issue: Would the market like to play the islamist+terrorist side? They resolved it by having a solo mode where you play the USA+allies side and an AI deals with the “bad guy” side.

      Twilight Struggle has less of the issue because it is further back in time, so people are not as vehemently angry at the Soviet Union any more.

      • Pablo Schulman

        One could argue that Twilight Struggle doesn’t particularly pit any side as correct or righteous, which is for me the right way given actions by both sides during the cold war. In that sense, it’s not like you are supposed to hate on one side in particular.

  8. Thank you, Dan. Your poignant review will stay with me for quite some time. I applaud Shuss for what he aims to accomplish with this project and wish him success.

    “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”
    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  9. Thank you for this and all that you do for the hobby Dan!

  10. Quite telling that every one of your reviews involving Christianity is laden with caveats and apologies and concern for its opponents.

    Your true God brooks no such equivocation. It is a pure force of good whose opponents are solely motivated by hate and evil.

    • Funny thing: I grew up being told the same stuff. Our side is all good and pure. Their side is all hate and evil.

      You really ought to get to know the folk on the receiving end of those accusations. I can’t speak for Jesus, but it seems he might’ve said a thing or two about loving your enemies.

      • In misunderstanding my comment, you did it again.

        Christians need to “love your enemies”. Progressivism (your true God) paints a black-and-white caricatured view of its “hateful”, “evil” opponents, and it “couldn’t be more appropriate”.

      • “You misunderstood me!”

        Or you spouted nonsense that had nothing to do with your secret “meaning.” LOL.

      • Ohhh, I see. You’re saying I’m not a true enough Scotsman for you.

        Okey dokey.

      • Marc, I have no idea how anybody could have read your comment the way you intended it.

        But your clarification shows you’ve missed the point of Dan’s piece. I didn’t get the sense he was saying that everybody who opposed Civil Rights was evil. He was saying the evil they did is how they’ll be remembered, because going down in history for oppressing a marginalized group overshadows the good they might have done. The designer isn’t trying to make a game that shows both sides. He’s telling the story from the perspective of Gay Rights activists, so it’s appropriate that the people oppressing them are drawn as villains.

        Also accusing a Christian of idolatry because he wants to see his religion live up to its values is a hell of a thing to do.

        a Christian pastor who probably doesn’t count as Christian in your estimation

  11. Wonderful piece, Dan.

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