If you want to see an example of what a board game can accomplish, while also being something I’d never recommend as a birthday gift, look no further than Erin Lee Escobedo’s Meltwater. It’s unflinchingly brutal and despairingly perceptive both at once.
Brace yourself. I have thoughts about this one.
As happens in the life of every board gamer who’s bothered to reproduce, there comes a time when your central preoccupation is the inculcation of cardboard and rulesets, dice and phases, punchboards and baggies. Brainwashing, to put it less nicely. All parenting is brainwashing, hopefully with more positive results than negative.
During our semi-regular visits to the local game store, Baby Cate — not rightfully baby anymore — would once upon a time beeline for the shopping baskets. Into the basket she’d climb, insisting it was a boat, and rock back and forth until it toppled onto its side, usually depositing her underfoot a passing stranger. Now her first destination is the shelf at the back, the one with the bright yellow HABA line. Somehow, against all odds, she managed to doe-eye her father into purchasing Drachenturm. Because it had a dragon on the box, you see.
Thankfully, Drachenturm has proved an apt instrument for imparting life lessons. Five of them, by my count. And Cate doesn’t even realize she’s learning.
Whether it’s tackling the Vietnam War, the Cuban Revolution, narco-terrorism in Colombia, or the shenanigans Julius Caesar pulled before attracting Shakespeare’s fancy, the COIN Series has never shied away from a hard topic. If anything, the French-Algerian War of 1954 to 1962 is a perfect fit for the series’ asymmetric take on insurgency warfare, casting players as either the French colonial government or the Front de Libération Nationale. Even better that it should be Brian Train’s second contribution after the quagmire simulator that was A Distant Plain.
But the stickiness of its setting isn’t why COIN’s seventh volume comes as such a surprise. Rather, it’s because Colonial Twilight is the first entry to feature fewer than four sides — and for all its familiarity, the result is a game that breaks exciting new ground for the series.
I’m not a math guy. This isn’t to say I can’t do math, just that I probably won’t, not voluntarily. If I’m waiting in a long line I might calculate my sales tax in advance, but that’s just because I’d rather not continue standing in a long line. Other than that, I’ll cheerfully cop to being terrible at knowing the odds.
Leaving Earth bills itself as “a tabletop game of the conquest of space,” but that’s a little bit like calling Columbus washing up in the Caribbean “the conquest of the New World.” This isn’t a game of conquest. It’s a game about the first tentative steps of discovery. Probes, surveys, launching a man into orbit, bringing him home. Most of all, though, it’s a game about the grace and sophistication of solving complicated math problems.
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.”
_____—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Letters and Papers from Prison
Black Orchestra is one of those rare games that revels in the hopelessness of its situation. Wallows in it, more like. As one of the conspirators bent on overthrowing Adolf Hitler — whether you’re a civilian businessman or politician, Abwehr or Wehrmacht officer — your chances are, as was the case in the real-life Schwarze Kapelle, nearly hopeless. It’s less an exercise in excitement and explosions, and more a game of waiting, of chewing your fingernails until they’re raw, of walking the line between playing it cool under pressure and taking foolhardy risks the instant an opening presents itself.
By way of example, let me tell you about three plots to assassinate Hitler.
Every time I’ve taught a group of friends how to play An Infamous Traffic, Cole Wehrle’s sophomore design and a sort of thematic follow-up to his astounding Pax Pamir, we reach a point where someone lets a nervous chuckle slip out. After explaining our role as British opium sellers, forcing our product on a nation whose authorities would very much rather we leave them alone, I begin describing the game’s take on supply and demand. We’re the supply, crates of dried poppy latex from India bumping around the holds of our ships. And the demand? Well, we’re that too. By inserting smugglers and missionaries into the workings of the Qing Dynasty, we spread the word and create an enthusiastic population of buyers.
It’s the missionaries that do it. Where I live in the heart of Zion — Mormon country to outsiders — a large quantity of young men and women serve eighteen-month to two-year church missions. For the most part, these are well-meaning acts of service and devotion. Those obnoxious pairs who knock on your door and smile a little too wide? That’s them. They’re also the ones mending fences, working in care centers, and going caroling in August. To that service-oriented mindset, the idea of peddling an addictive substance — other than the opiate of the masses, depending on your perspective on the matter — is nothing short of appalling.
An Infamous Traffic is a game with a lot on its mind. And one of those things is that certain trades pollute everything they touch, no matter how well-intentioned the people engaged in it.
They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.
In general, I’ve heard two broad complaints about The Grizzled — which, as I wrote last year, I consider an important title. This is probably overselling the matter; after all, it has been accepted rather warmly considering it’s a crab-apple of a game, tough and sour all the way to the core, with only the tiniest seeds of hope at the center. Still, there’s a new expansion available, called At Your Orders!, and it seeks to ameliorate some of the complaints with the base game. So let’s talk.
For those of us who haven’t lived it, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like under Soviet rule. In Poland, once the last political opposition was eliminated in 1947, once the last resistance fighters were killed in 1963, once private entrepreneurs were ousted from the economy in favor of state administrators who emphasized military preparedness and national industries over individual comfort, times got lean. And when I say “lean,” I’m not talking about a shortage here or there. I’m talking about the long hunger of the 1970s and ’80s, when the demand for everything from meat to soap wasn’t even close to being met. These were the years of the endless queues lining Polish streets, when families would buy up whatever was available when they finally reached the front of the line. Even if it wasn’t something they could use themselves, at least they could barter it at one of many semi-legal outdoor markets.
Kolejka — or Queue, in English — is about those years when even the ration cards had ration cards. And that isn’t a joke. To prevent people from using too many ration cards, the communist authorities issued new IDs that tracked how many ration cards you used. That’s how bad things had gotten.
As a medium, board games tend to revolve around tried-and-true topics, uncontroversial subject matter like surviving a zombie apocalypse or building a medieval town. This is hardly surprising; with their focus on social interaction and optimal move-making, there isn’t often much room left over for heady discussion — say, of the obstacles facing a developing African nation. At best, the game will be scrutinized for casting its controversial setting as “play,” or perhaps even more damningly, for not focusing enough on the play. At worst, it could come across as downright ignorant or offensive.
DRCongo, the latest title from Ragnar Brothers, embraces the controversy. Not only is it set within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, casting its players as industrialists who collect diamonds, deploy peacekeepers to suppress insurgents, buy political offices, and get filthy rich extracting oil and minerals from the Congolese countryside, it also posits that its magnates are forces of benevolence, employing their wealth to bring about an era of stability. In essence, you will take part in some extremely spurious activities, but the end goal is surprisingly admirable.
If nothing else, DRCongo is hopelessly optimistic.
Dark clouds are smouldering into red
__While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
__To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
__Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
__And on his lips a whispered name.
You’d think, to hear some people talk,
__That lads go west with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
__Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they’ve been taught the way to do it
__Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
__With due regard for decent taste.
________— “How to Die,” Siegfried Sassoon, 1917