Tube of Treachery
As popular as it is to make games about war, more and more I’m drawn to those that investigate peace. Specifically, those fraught peacetimes that can be lost as surely as war, that can demolish a country, a people, a future more surely than any cannonade.
John Hague’s forthcoming The Last Summit is one such examination. Like many of our cultural landscape’s speculations for the day after tomorrow, The Last Summit presumes the collapse of civilization and the advent of apocalypse. Unlike its peers, however, it also presumes that we’ve somehow waded through to the other side. Humanity’s leaders have come together to negotiate the shape of the new world. It’s a chance to work together to quell the excesses that pushed the globe over the brink — or to capitalize on everybody’s exhaustion to seize power for yourself.
What a pitch. Optimistic and tenuous at once, The Last Summit has the advantage of treading familiar ground. From its very first moments, it has a lived-in quality, a certain historical resemblance, not unlike the hindsight we apply when recalling how a young person in 1914 couldn’t have guessed at what Versailles would craft only a few short years and a lifetime later. The world has ended. You’ve been handed a chance to birth a new one. There’s a very real chance it will be as stillborn as the last. But maybe, just maybe, it will be a world worth the shaping.
I suspect nobody goes into The Last Summit thinking they’ll play the tyrant. More likely your goal is the same as everybody else’s. There are five issues on the table — engineering, war, intelligence, food, and the environment — all of which begin scattered between the poles of a crisis chart. Your task is twofold: ensure those issues are adequately funded and nudge them one debate at a time from the poles to the chart’s center. If that can be accomplished, world peace will prevail. Otherwise… well, we’ll return to the otherwise in a moment.
This depiction could come across as somewhat wishy-washy, a centrist’s fantasy about how every issue can be taken to extremes and must be moderated. I suspect that might be reading more into The Last Summit’s underlying politics than it really bears. I read the crisis track as more a measure of whether these particular issues have been adequately addressed or not, whether this new government will be equipped to handle the prevalent troubles of our day or else leave them festering by the wayside as harbingers of public anxiety and resentment. In any case, the game puts the track to good use. Every round revolves around a debate between two issues, plus the struggle over how those issues will be adjusted up or down the track. It’s a gradual auction, with players either investing their cards as funding, arguing an issue, or curating their hand. Attentive play will require some mix of all three, especially as the summit’s clock approaches midnight. Think of it like a cooperative puzzle under time pressure. If every issue has been settled and funded by the time the game ends, you can pat yourselves on the back. You’ve done the impossible.
Okay, it’s not always impossible. In practice, some summits are pleasant affairs, more like sharing drinks with company than negotiating the reshaping of the world. Other sessions are more tense, requiring careful delays to the summit’s conclusion and even some hefty browbeating when somebody doesn’t go along with the plan. That’s when The Last Summit is at its most interesting, although it still never embraces its fiction as much as it could have. It’s interesting more as a puzzle than because you’re behaving like an actual diplomat with tangible goals and needs. Still, some sessions come closer than others to confronting its heftier subject matter. Some of that wiggle room comes down to the luck of the draw. Each round presents two issues to debate, but one is drawn at random. There’s really not much you can do when the issue at hand isn’t worth adding cards to. That is, unless you’re willing to tip your hand that you don’t want the summit to succeed.
This is the core conceit of The Last Summit. If the summit’s goals are met, everybody wins together. If one or more issues remain as outliers, then the victor is whomever has invested in them the most, becoming a populist tyrant rather than sharing the toys with the other children. Put more tangibly, if the population isn’t given assurances that this new world order will handle food production, the delegate who’s built up the strongest food stores and production is declared the world leader. I’m not sure every issue is equally believable that a charismatic dictator could carry away the people’s hearts by promising to wipe away their ill comfort in, say, “engineering,” but that’s hardly the point. If The Last Summit has a thesis, it’s that winning together can be less satisfying than winning alone. That we love superstars more than team players. That history defaults to memorializing Great Men over great compromisers. That individuals will, when given the opportunity, seize the brass ring themselves rather than hoisting somebody onto their shoulders to seize it. As the box puts it, “There is no traitor card except the one in your heart.” If traitors didn’t lurk in at least a few hearts, the whole experiment would fall apart.
On one level, that experiment is a success, especially when the summit threatens failure. Investments are initially made face-down and only become visible after some lag, but it isn’t difficult to note a correlation between unresolved issues and the investments everybody is making. Because, sure, if we’re going to lose the game, why shouldn’t we think about the future? When the ship is listing, everybody shuffles closer to the lifeboats and starts checking the velcro on the flotation vests. It’s only natural.
But The Last Summit doesn’t complete the experiment. The stakes are simply too low. There’s no freezing brackish water on the other side of the fiberglass. If the ship lists, we can step over the side and into the parking lot, because this is a houseboat in a boat show, not a vessel battered by the stormy sea. I don’t only say this because The Last Summit is a game, with real consequences securely insulated behind the magic circle. Rather, it’s because it’s such a light game, an untethered game, a game without wider context or reason to care about the fate of its world. In our plays, dictators only attempted a coup in two circumstances. First, when it was obvious the summit was going to fail and a player blundered into victory entirely by accident. And second, when somebody was bored and wanted to see how the game would resolve if we didn’t win together. These weren’t charismatic populists. They were gamers tinkering with a game state. Sometimes badly.
To some degree, we need to appreciate that Hague is attempting to thread a rather narrow needle with The Last Summit. One of the toughest hurdles with any game is the moment it asks players to care about a world they know is fictional and ephemeral. That understanding is healthy, even. Ask anyone who’s played with a sore loser and you’ll hear the rare non-dickish instantiation of “It’s just a game.” We play these things because we care about the outcome, but also because we don’t care so much that its ups and downs adversely affect us.
So how does a game ask players to care? By showing them how to win. I’ve written before that a game’s core ethic is nearly always expressed through its victory condition. We can complete any number of actions in a game, act out nonsense sequences, walk our characters back and forth, but the actions that cut to the heart of a game’s intentions are those that grant victory. In The Last Summit, winning as a group and winning alone are effectively identical. Apart from some theoretical meta-appeal to winning solo, there’s simply no reason to prize it over the collaborative ending. It isn’t a “better” win. It’s just there.
It doesn’t help that The Last Summit comes across as a little too tabula rasa, perhaps even naïve, in its belief that a summit like this could result in total parity. Our delegates aren’t burdened with individual objectives, à la Dead of Winter, to give the appearance of selfishness despite their genuine intentions. Nor are they presented as statesmen with competing ideas of what the post-war world ought to look like, as in Versailles 1919. Even flawed experiments in semi-cooperative victory conditions such as New Angeles found novel ways to simulate conflicting loyalties. Without the benefit of similar lampshading, selfish behavior in The Last Summit is trivially spotted a mile off. Indeed, its rare coups tend to be launched only in the last round or two, after any pretense of collaboration has flown the coop. The game doesn’t offer the tools necessary to incentivize or enable its diversions into self-interest.
This robs The Last Summit of its most interesting proposition, a fate it shares with a large body of titles that struggle to tinker with the nature of win conditions and player incentives. Fortunately, its core puzzle is interesting enough — and its final dash for solo victory mad enough, when it comes to that — as to remain playable in spite of that absence.
What’s left? A diversion rather than a successful reorientation, but a pleasant and approachable one. It may lean hard into that tube-adorning question about traitor cards tucked among our ventricles, but it’s more aptly described as a cooperative puzzle that might break down prematurely and see players ditching the jigsaw to tend to their own little corner. In that regard, it’s an enjoyable little thing. I only wish its experiment in traitorous hearts had been more successful.
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A prototype copy was provided.
Posted on January 17, 2023, in Board Game and tagged Board Games, Quill Gaming, The Last Summit. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.
Well, I would say that “engineering” populist dictator would be someone Musk-like, proposing to solve every problem through the power of their (alleged) engineering genius