€laborate Banality

To hear Brexiteers speak, I'd think it's against EUROLAW to deface a euro like that.

There’s this devastating moment in one of my favorite shows of all time, Mr. Robot. This character, a banker, describes the day he and other high-level executives decided to cover up evidence that one of their factories was leaking toxic chemicals. Speaking to the daughter of an employee who died from leukemia caused by that leak, this banker details how rather than going public with the information, the company decided to stash some money for a possible future lawsuit. Any settlement today would be paid from a fraction of the interest earned on that investment.

In a show packed with bombastic conspiracies, it’s an understated moment. This particular coverup wasn’t about controlling the world. It was the banality of regarding human beings as risks to be managed, item lines to be balanced, expenditures to be weighed against other expenditures.

€uro Crisis, whose designer only goes by “Galgor,” and published by Doppeldenkspiele — to give you some sense of what’s to come, that translates to “Doublethink Games” — also isn’t about controlling the world. It’s about financial crises and the people who profit from them. And it cranks the banality up to eleven.

Check out those crummy Russian tanks!

Taking advantage of a country on the brink.

Let’s set the scene.

Europe’s financial market is collapsing. Sound familiar? Here’s the good news: you wear one of those insufferable blue pinstripes with a white collar to work. Yes, you’ve stumbled into a position that would make pharaohs and emperors blush with shame. Merit got you here, is what you tell yourself. Has nothing to do with your great-grandfather’s name on the building. However you got here (it’s merit), you know exactly what to do. (Because of merit.) You have these burner phones with important numbers in them. (You got them through merit.) Dial one of those numbers and, oops, you’re talking to a muckety-muck at the European Central Bank. (Sure, he’s your cousin, but you didn’t always talk to him on the skiing trips.) Dial another, you’re talking to a disgraced colonel in Moscow. He has a few tanks to sell. (To meritorious individuals only.) Call another, and the president of Greece is dying to chat. Say a few words, and the entire political structure of the country can be rearranged. Because democracy is a suggestion, right?

(Merit.)

If this sounds cynical, don’t expect the atmosphere to air out anytime soon. €uro Crisis is steeped to the gills with cynicism. Every single action is rapacious, treating countries, landmarks, markets, governments, and people with equivalent distaste. The basic process goes something like this. Every fiscal quarter, the bankers at the table individually choose who to call. The ECB in Frankfurt will sell you billions of euros at almost no interest. The stock exchange in London will let you loan those billions to various countries. To pay off their debt, these countries gratefully exchange their precious state properties for gold bullion. Ever wanted to own the Eiffel Tower? No? You should. How about Guinness brewery? A Greek island? France’s aging nuclear arsenal? Anything and everything is up for grabs.

True, you deserve these things. (Because merit.) That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to purchase them. Or keep them. At the end of every year, those countries will further destabilize. If they grow too unstable, they’ll cancel their debt, leaving you without the advantage of their paybacks. Worse, if the populace becomes sufficiently unruly, they might riot in the streets. The only thing that will placate them is the nationalization of those same landmarks you purchased. Or a vicious crackdown by state police.

If only the proles didn’t make you keep them in line. Good thing you have the proper tools at your disposal. A call to Moscow can supply you with guns, whether to arm the government so the people keep their grubby fingers off your newly-acquired Acropolis or, if you’re feeling catty, to instead arm the people so they repossess the King of Spain from his sponsor, who happens to be a competitor of yours. Other phone calls let you rejigger entire political systems at will.

This, incidentally, is perhaps the most innovative of €uro Crisis’s many systems. Whenever you want to make a change, you can pay to tweak a country’s political parties. There are four poles — conservatives, socialists, liberals, and communists — and everything on the table is laid out so that when you push a disc in one direction everything reacts by moving in sync. For example, the conservative party sits on the right side of the political display. When you pay them, their disc is pushed leftward. At the same time, the debt ceiling moves left as they enact austerity measures, capping how much debt you can purchase from that country, and the people’s happiness decreases by moving left on its track. The same goes for the other parties. Every adjustment nudges portions of the country’s economy, the happiness of its people, and whether privatized utilities earn cash or have to pay some back. It’s a complicated idea made digestible through a masterful layout.

Where is the call to start my own spaceflight firm so I can pretend there's any hope of abandoning Earth after I've helped render it uninhabitable?

I’ll make some calls…

Digestible, but not exactly simple. €uro Crisis isn’t traditionally complicated, but everything takes multiple steps to actualize, and it takes a while to see how it all fits together. The short version goes like this:

  1. Go into debt to buy euros
  2. Sell euros to struggling countries to generate passive income
  3. Use that income to buy gold and guns
  4. Spend gold in auctions to privatize national treasures
  5. Defend your privatized stuff by any means necessary

In practice, disruptions abound. What happens when a rival eggs a country’s market into decline so they’ll cancel the debts they owe you? When should you take advantage of the gun and gold markets? Is there a good reason to promote a country’s liberals for some petty cash? How much debt is too much debt? Be careful. There is a wrong answer. The goal is to own the most privatizations at game’s end, but you lose outright if your income slides to negative twenty. One or two ill-timed crashes can do that to even well-hedged banks.

As strange as this comparison might sound, the closest touchstone to €uro Crisis is some of the cube rails games I’ve played. It opens with everybody selling euros to two countries and auctioning off the first few privatizations, possibly setting up somebody to fail right from the get-go. From there, it’s all bristles and hard interactions, with very little interest in holding your hand or strapping a golden parachute to a falling player. As ironic as that is — “merit,” etc. — it gives the whole thing a cutthroat edge. Decisions that seem insubstantial can prove corrosive to your overall standing, petty rivals can become major backaches, and the periodic pushback from the game itself can scuttle your plans during a sensitive takeover.

It’s miserable, in other words. Nothing feels good. Textually, every action brings misery upon thousands, and that misery is writ small upon the table, very likely displeasing everybody else while achieving only the smallest gains for yourself. Of course, its miserableness is entirely the point, giving it a fierceness that’s equal parts furious and resigned. Playing this game, one imagines themself a billionaire CEO who flies into outer space with a television actor who once played a starship captain. When that actor tries to give voice to how terribly lonesome they became at the sight of our blue marble alone among all that black, how frightened for the future, how close to death — then, with the swiftness of a startled hare, one imagines themself as that billionaire CEO retreating to the safety of a spray of champagne.

Playing this game, one imagines themself hollowed out by money.

This is telling: Every play, one person has laughed nervously and confessed that they don't know what they're doing.

It isn’t complicated, per se, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand what’s going on.

€uro Crisis places that banality on a stage and lets it strut. Such an act proves elaborate in its satire, speaking in that machinegun cadence that makes a paranoiac sound compelling until the rush has passed. That’s when the realization sets in. This satire is only effective to a point. Its weakness is that it stretches the banality until it snaps. It isn’t enough to be a billionaire CEO with a ledger where his heart should be. You must also be a billionaire with a burner phone to a Russian colonel peddling surplus T-90s. You must be a billionaire who arms France with those T-90s so they can roll over anyone displeased that you now own the nuclear arsenal.

A striking image. But also a funhouse image. Because this isn’t how power is currently structured, even under a system as dismaying as what we’ve currently got. For one thing, France has its own tanks for steamrolling the masses.

If the satire is blunted by excess, what about the rest of the game? To some degree, it becomes more approachable. It’s still a natty design, full of snags and sharp corners. But it’s somewhat less interesting. The cruelty feels less like commentary. The stark actions grow brusquer. That’s where €uro Crisis leaves me. It’s a game that wants to speak truth to power, but can’t help but rant itself into a corner. What remains is an interesting economic game, an extraction simulator taken to its worst-case conclusion, a race to stay ahead of your debts so you can profit from them. It’s a good one — but it isn’t quite as incisive as it thinks.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on October 10, 2022, in Board Game and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. Michael Norrish

    Fascinating! Thanks for the excellent review. I wonder what the game is that gets this “most right”. I certainly don’t mind the cynicism, nor satire, but I agree that it is definitely possible to go too far in the direction of incredible and that “untethering” would weaken both the gameplay _and_ the pointedness of the satire.

  2. Decisions in the US to go to war or bankroll proxy wars is largely made by politicians and bureaucrats with either revolving door relationships with the major American arms manufacturers, are heavily lobbied by them and/or have shares in those companies. The American media landscape is likewise full of former government officials and vice versa who sell those wars to a public who is largely indifferent or opposed to those wars, and when they take to the streets the same armoured vehicles that lie rusting in a Ukrainian ditch are rolling are firing teargas on BLM protestor, so I don’t see how the network of phone calls in this game is that far-fetched.

  3. I couldn’t help laughing at what seems to be your main objection to the ppl depicted in this game, which is their privilege, the fact that they didn’t assume these abusive positions of power by their bootstraps. Would all of this be better if the head of the ECB and IMF were from the ghetto?

    If anyone is actually interested in the eurocrisis, Adam Tooze, a very well regarded economic historian, wrote a book called Crashed. He has also written extensively on the role of banking in transatlantic history. Noam Chomsky’s name has almost become a cliché in these discussions but he remains (even to those who don’t subscribe to his politics) an incredibly well-informed source on the reproduction of power in the age of US hegemony.

    • …huh? I have no problem whatsoever with the game’s utter disdain for its protagonists and their self-proclaimed merit. That’s one of the best things about it.

      • It was your fixation on meritocracy that I found funny. Who cares if these ppl got to where they are by nepotism or by a ruthless scramble to the top? What difference does it make to the outcome?

    • My god you are a bore. Every time you show up here it’s the same thing.

      • Lol. Sorry for boring you. I used to find this site a good place to learn about games and still do in some cases but when I read reviews, especially of historically or politically themed games, I can’t help slapping myself in the head at how predictable and trivial the commentary is. I’m sure Dan doesnt take it personally, afterall he says worse things about other ppl’s work. My main complaint is mostly that he doesn’t seem to read the subjects about which he speaks with such authority. I think that’s a legit criticism no? I can’t help it if you find it boring.

  4. Canadian scholar Peter Dale Scott is also very useful for understanding the relationship between banking, the state and foreign policy in the 20th century.

  5. “Because this isn’t how power is currently structured…”. Because the game doesn’t conform to Foucault’s structures or more seriously, maybe there’s nothing wrong with this presentation because power currently lacks coherent structure? What I mean is that this eagerness for structure seems as an inherent blindness of the academic world of humanities, in which several key figures in power have their roots. Current developments have only emphasized that what might have looked as a plan was nothing more than an imagination, a chaotic state, not a logical structure, that easily can be exploited.

    Board games conforms to set of rules with pretty controlled randomness. If not a game becomes unplayable. Hence I suspect analysis from such a perspective is too logical. Power is currently more in a state of deadly satire than anything else. I’m intrigued to test this game for that reason, because it seems to make just as much sense as anything else going on.

    • Not really. I’m not much of an adherent to Foucault.

      My concern is more that €uro Crisis flirts with an incisive portrayal of modern banking, only to veer into Gru replacing the pyramids with blow-up replicas.

      Shrug.

      • Foucalt was meant as a joke and not as if I understood your articles about Root as anything else but an analysis of how Foucalt’s ideas might be presented by game mechanics.

        Ok, I didn’t interpret this as a game about banking system as such, but if so it becomes a much narrower presentation. In my mind I saw more of symbioses between individual bankers, oligarchs and commercial complexes. The typical corruption we so often see in even less corrupt countries.

        Your picture about pyramids and replicas reminds me of some financial packages shuffling money into black greedy holes, while the empire blows up.

  6. Sounds like Imperial with more steps?

  7. Have you checked out the new Planet B from HiG? I might work well I. This line of reviews.

  8. Kinda makes me think of Imperial 2030.

  9. Nikolai aka Galgor aka the designer of the game

    When we developed Euro Crisis we never thought about Imperial… Of course we were aware of some similarities, but Imperial is a constructive game (you want the countries where you have most shares to prosper) whereas in Euro Crisis you have to keep the countries in a state where they just crash in a convenient moment.
    Of course, together with Diplomacy and Caylus, Imperial is my all-time favorite game. I don’t claim that Euro Crisis is anywhere near these great games.

    • Thanks for the insight. Crashing companies and profiting by it is a neat feature of some of my favorite games. Nice that Euro Crisis lets you do the same thing.

      Imperial does let you crash countries by sending armies off to die, leaving them easy pickings for that neighboring country you just happen to have a stake in… Some cube rails and 18xx games have similar opportunities. And the Pax games as well!

  10. Sounds like I’d love this one. Thanks for reviewing weird games! Now to find a copy.

    Too bad about the idiot whose takeaway is that you love banks. If you find any satire about banks leaden, then you must be in love with banks.

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