Welcome back to Abstracts Get Political, the only series that looks at how abstract board games can make ideological points even in the absence of a strong setting! Last time we looked at Suffragetto, a game from over a century ago that served as both an optimistic statement on the winnability of the women’s suffrage movement and a source of funding for the same. Today we’re going in the opposite direction by investigating a title that’s more cynical about the concept of “winning” altogether — Brian Train’s Guerrilla Checkers.
Brian Train is a household name in Château de Thurot, mostly for his work on the COIN Series. With titles such as A Distant Plain and Colonial Twilight in his portfolio, he’s an old hand at modeling asymmetric warfare. But where Train’s other games have considered issues of geography, ethnicity, and even competing notions of “victory,” Guerrilla Checkers reduces the concept to its most essential. Namely, that winning at guerrilla warfare is an issue of stamina.
Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a wonderful and (appropriately) strange novel, its meandering plot belying an uncommon thematic density. It never goes quite where you’d expect — an effect supported by footnotes that lend the air of a recovered manuscript — and you can hardly turn the page without encountering one idea subtly folding into another. Englishness versus otherness. The tension between madness and reason. The thin line between friendship and rivalry.
Now it’s a board game. And it’s a terrible shame that apparently nobody involved with this adaptation seems to have read the novel very closely.
Let me ask you a serious question. Clear your head, take a deep breath, find your center. Should religious institutions be required to pay taxes? Woah there, cowboy. You have two choices. (A) No. Prayer is an intangible service. (B) Yes. Even God should tremble before the tax collector.
Oh, and just so you know, depending on how you answered, you just outed yourself as either an ultra-capitalist or a showman. And the capitalist answered A.
Welcome to Shasn, one of the most unhinged, perceptive, outlandish, and timely games you might never play.
You’ve heard the refrain: abstract games are themeless. That’s what they say. Who’s they? They, man. The forces arrayed against abstract games. Big Cardboard and their flavor text agenda.
Which is why I’m launching a new series about the abstract games that prove them wrong. Abstracts with a point in mind, a statement, a perspective. And they make it without a ten-page backstory, an art budget, or a single line of flavor text. Join the revolution before it sweeps you away.
First up, a game straight out of history. It’s Suffragetto!
The civilization genre has always been about gluttony. Think back on all those times you shepherded a civilization from tiny settlement to grand empire. When was having more not a good thing? The success of a game-based civilization is nearly always measured in size, stockpile, quantity, output. Even digital civgames, which occasionally fret over issues like expansion stress or population pressure, nearly always treat these issues as minor debuffs on the national scale, and offer solutions as something you can build, research, or buy. To solve the inflation caused by your treasure fleets, spend extra money on more treasure fleets.
Of course, historical civilizations have no such advantage. Too much gold infused into your economy and it sheds its value. Too many stockpiled resources invites theft and pestilence. Too many cities and your borders stretch until invasion or fragmentation is all but inevitable. A soaring population is a hotbed of plague and strife. Even happiness is a double-edged sword. When low, your people revolt; when high, they grow plump and expect new amusements. It’s easy to forget that Juvenal wasn’t being shrewd when he wrote about “bread and circuses.” He was decrying the complacency of the population. In game terms, Juvenal’s Rome had a maxed-out happiness score. It just so happened that max happiness also spelled significant dings to military readiness and civic duty.
Now let’s talk about Gentes.
Following up on my previous Patreon-funded essay, we’re talking about the five categories I use when thinking and writing about board games, and how they might help revolutionize games criticism forever. Hey, I’m nothing if not humble.
The seven elements of fiction. That’s where we left off last time. Character, theme, plot, setting, point of view, struggle, and tone. Seven concepts that are almost universally recognizable to anyone who’s completed a primary education, and which concisely break down nearly any story into its component building blocks. Even those who couldn’t list them off the top of their head would almost certainly recognize them if pressed. “What’s a plot?” they would sputter. “What do you mean, What is a plot? It’s what happens in a story. That or a conspiracy, or maybe a division of farmland. Now please step back, street person with an uncanny interest in the seven elements of style.”
At least that’s what happened when I conducted an informal poll downtown.
I have a theory that the hallmark of a heavy economic game is the ability to take out a loan. Not just any loan, mind you. This isn’t some family loan, a hand-wavey Pay me back when you get the chance, son. No, this is the loan a banker makes when he’s got you over a barrel with one hand and is clutching your short hairs with the other. The sort of loan that makes you wonder why you decided to lay track instead of becoming a financier.
Pipeline lets you take out such loans. The first time will wring a gasp-worthy 33% interest out of you, and each additional loan compounds from there. By the fifth visit to Mr. Manager, Sir, you’ll be required to pay back 400% of what you borrowed. Not that you’ll need five loans. But the option is there, tantalizing like an apple in the Garden of Eden.
Does Pipeline live up to its allure? For a while, sure.
There are competing theories about how often you should be able to win a cooperative game. Once every two plays? One in three? One in five, but you can improve that by building a solid deck? Nearly every time, but with graded scores? One in a hundred, because your game is Ghost Stories?
The Shipwreck Arcana — which trucks a little bit in the arcane but not even a titch in shipwrecks — hews closer to one in one. So close that even with the occasional loss, you’re hardly even rounding up.
Just when I thought I’d seen everything you could do with the humble battle line game — Schotten-tots, as I prefer to call them — Jon Perry decided it was a good time to drop Air, Land, & Sea in my lap. Rather than going big, bigger, or biggest, Perry has gone the other direction entirely, crafting a devious gem that lands plenty of punches with only 18 cards.