Abstracts Get Political: GoCaine

A church leader came over to my house. He saw GoCaine on the table. "Is that a game... about COCAINE?" he asked. "Nah, it's about baby powder." He was visibly relieved. I said, "Of course it's about cocaine." He looked like I'd slapped him.

Once in a while, an abstract game steps away from the norm by being overtly political. See, for example, my series on Suffragetto, Guerrilla Checkers, and Paco Ŝako. This isn’t to say that every abstract game with a real-world setting qualifies as political. But if the first thing somebody does when unpacking the game is to pour out a pile of white plastic cubes, scrape them into lines with a credit card, and then wonder aloud about the real-world cost of its weight in cocaine — which is exactly what my friend Geoff did as we sat down to give Richard Nguyen-Marshall’s GoCaine a try —

Yeah. I’m gonna call that political.

I mean, if it works better than the stuff I get...

Trafficking cough syrup.

Let me give you another example. This one requires some prep work.

As you may have inferred from the title, GoCaine is about two things, both of which I’ll assume you’re conceptually familiar with. There’s Go, the Chinese game of laying and capturing stones that’s probably the longest-played board game in human history, and cocaine, the psychoactive alkaloid of two species of Coca plants native to the Andean region of South America. Call it a historic combination. Despite being a part of the human experience for thousands of years, they only found each other last year. Take that, Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook.

Even though it’s a pairing likely to raise an eyebrow or two, the lovebirds make a natural fit. Cells, the game’s name for its Go stones, serve double duty. Exactly as in Go, they’re used to enact a wide-ranging area control game full of remarkable subtleties. At the same time, they serve as hubs for your criminal enterprise, letting you purchase, transport, and sell metric tons of cocaine, usually in that order and for landmark profits. Profits, by the way, soon become the watchword that defines everything about GoCaine. Sure, you could purchase drugs in one zone, hop them across a single border, and sell them for some measly profits. But it’s far more advantageous to grow the stuff in Colombia or Bolivia, bounce them between redundant waypoints in the ocean to reduce the chances of having your shipments impounded by the authorities, and mark them up for American consumers.

Every step of this process is laden with risk. On the drug front, players can spend their hard-earned cash for drug interdiction tokens, which can be spent at any time to initiate searches — simple dice rolls — that may see you losing millions of dollars of product all at once. Fine, so you parcel out your packages, moving only two or three metric tons a pop. Except that’s where Go comes in. To ship product, you need cells in neighboring regions. But those cells are vulnerable to being captured by rival cells, possibly even seizing your hard-earned drugs in the process. The more you spread out your shipments, the more diffuse your network, which in turn can spell potential vulnerabilities to rival cartels. That goes double when you’re playing with more than one rival. Where ordinary Go is limited to two players, working against three or four opponents means your turn might roll around to squeezed borders where only a moment ago you were secure. Anticipate collaboration, negotiation, and backstabbing.

But here’s the interesting part. Every time I’ve played GoCaine, I’ve left out one detail. After about ninety minutes of building networks and making opportunistic cash grabs, somebody asks the question: “When does this thing end?” My response: “It doesn’t. It never ends. That’s the point.”

It’s a lie. But not as much as you might think.

I too enjoy money. Let us enjoy some money together.

It’s all about the money.

In reality, GoCaine ends when somebody amasses a billion dollars. It takes a while to reach that point. Longer than you might expect. Three hours, certainly. Maybe even four. Everything I’ve read about GoCaine has mentioned its duration as a sticking point. Some play to half a billion instead.

That’s a mistake. Not because it’s wrong to kvetch about the length — GoCaine feels long, which is an entirely different bear from being long — but because it misses out on two important points. First, half a billion dollars isn’t far removed from a billion. No, really. The game is at its most drawn-out in the lean turns when money is tight, you have a limited network that can’t rapidly move drug shipments, and a single interdiction can set you back a handful of turns. It’s even possible to find yourself without any cash or drugs at all, which forces you into a rather dangerous loan that threatens to boot you from the game entirely if it isn’t paid back. By the time you hit half a billion dollars, you’re probably only three or four moves from joining the tres comas club. If you want to shorten this thing, the better answer is to begin with more seed money. Except, of course, that would ruin the entire experience, because then you’re missing out on those essential early turns, and also because the game might end before it becomes a soul-sucking drain on your existence.

We’ll come back to that. First, though, please don’t assume that this is some anti-game that hates fun. The soul-sucking isn’t the only reason GoCaine asks for an unbroken few hours. There’s nothing quite like a late-game reversal, that moment when the board has become so crowded that somebody’s network of a dozen cells is vaporized in an instant. The ensuing scurry — to claim territory, to gobble up any unclaimed shipments, to shore up new boundaries — is as precise an example of a power vacuum as has ever appeared in a board game. It’s a tactile illustration of why every gain in the “war on drugs” can only be temporary. The hydra loses its head, but there are three more sets of fangs snapping eagerly for their chance to take its place. At this scale, at these profits, there’s no way the ashes wouldn’t get turned over into fresh topsoil.

Also, yes, because the length is a point unto itself. GoCaine is full of points like that, little observations that might slip by the wayside if the thing wasn’t as in-your-face as a snoutful of powder. Take Go, for instance. I don’t know much about Go. But the few times I’ve played Go, it’s impressed me with how it literalizes the diffuseness of threat. When I move a piece in Chess, I understand its threat. I can outline its threat on the board. I can approximate the shape of its future threats. That’s because its threats are acute. In Go, the threats are diffuse. Every piece functions as offense and defense at once. They’re projections of possibility and intent, elbowing out the board’s breathing room with every move. In GoCaine, its cells undoubtedly staffed by rough men with guns, that threat and its diffuseness are never far from mind. Does my rival want a shipping route in the Caribbean? Is he muscling in on my territory? Is he applying pressure so I waste my time shoring up my cells? More often than not, the answer is some combination of all of the above.

The same goes for the game’s duration. In a sense, it recalls Erin Lee Escobedo’s Meltwater, which won over my heart by finishing whenever somebody had had enough. There, the only conclusion was crying uncle. GoCaine isn’t so radical. But its endgame trigger is remote enough that it communicates something similarly plaintive. There were cartels and strongmen before you. There will be others after you. Eventually these empires will slip. It won’t matter. Because the way this conflict is fought, there’s no reason for the game to stop. All the incentives are piled up on the side of somebody else stepping into the void to take their shot at fame and fortune.

This was a funny session more than anything.

When your friends don’t know how to play Go.

I can already hear the follow-up questions. Please don’t ask me if it’s fun. Don’t ask if there’s some imagined fun-to-time ratio that it lands on one side or another of. Those aren’t the point. Although, sure, there is some vicious delight to be found in demolishing a rival network, in siccing the hounds on an opponent’s morsels. I’ve laughed when playing GoCaine. Sometimes cruelly. Sometimes despondently.

In both cases, GoCaine has more to offer. More than a plaything, it’s a demonstration. I know people who were casualties to this — what should I call it? War? Conflict? GoCaine doesn’t denounce those descriptors. Instead, it highlights a more apt one. I know people who were casualties to this commerce. I know people who washed up face-down on the shore of these profits. I know people, good people, smart people, kind people, most of all ordinary people, who were wrung out and tossed aside by this trade. I’ve heard it said that El Chapo left behind an empire bigger than Walmart. I wonder what his successor’s empire will be bigger than.

Because it will never end. Not the way we’re fighting it. By the billions of dollars on offer, it will never end.


(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 August 17, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Christian van Someren

    Such an interesting concept for an abstract, do you have any thoughts of the ethics of playing as a drug lord?

    • Great question. Apart from ensuring that everybody is comfortable with the role, and the usual responsibility to treat one another with respect and good sportsmanship, there is no moral culpability to the actions one undertakes during play. Portrayal is not endorsement.

  2. The ethics of play is being nice to other players. The ethics of drug lords does not come into it.

  3. Thank you, Dan, for such a thoughtful and well-written review of my game. I am very impressed with how you contextualized the game politically while also addressing some important parts about the mechanics. You have a great writing style!

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