Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Marxist games

Me and my gang generally prefer co-op boardgames to competitive ones. Every once in a while it's fun to kick the shit out of each other but mostly we'd rather work together against a common threat. Sadly, there aren't many games like that out there. So, being someone who does game design as a hobby I thought I'd make one.

I started thinking about theme (that's usually where I start when I'm brainstorming boardgames). The common fantasy and sci-fi tropes have mostly been covered so I wanted to do something a bit different. On the bus, I got the idea of making a wild west railroad-building (not really original, I know) game where all the players play different roles in the same company. During the game there would be random bad things happening and screwing up your work, like indians showing up to raid...and in that very moment I though "Whoa, wait a sec, did I just invent a game where you steal land from the Native Americans? That's a bit unsavoury.". Why not make a game where you play the natives trying to drive the colonists off their land. I mean, we know that's not what "really happened" in the long run but what kind of stupid argument is that?

So that provoked a train of thought (no pun intended) about the imperialist logic that's very much present in most boardgaming. For starters, Monopoly has been initially invented as a parable of the soul-sucking death spiral of free market, but now it's probably the most popular (well, most sold I guess) game in the world and part of the culture. Colonialism is another very popular theme. In Settlers of Catan you're given the comforting frame that the land there is free for you to take. But then there's the robber. He's black and he lives in the desert. Who would choose to live in a desert, especially on an island that's rich in forests and pastures? Nobody, that's who. The robber didn't pick to live in the desert, you drove him there with your senseless expansionism. He's not stealing because that's his nature, he's stealing because you left him no other option. You bastard.

Another very good and very popular game is Puerto Rico in which you try to build a bigger, better more prosperous city than your opponents. But it's all done against an unspoken background of colonialism, exploitation and slavery. Looking at BoardgameGeek's ranking list the vast majority of top-list games are about imperialism, colonisation, warfare, power, aristocracy and capitalism and almost always from a "western" (for lack of a better word) perspective.

We have a bunch of games about the industrial revolution, so why not a game where you play workers trying to seize the means of production from your bourgeois masters? I'm not even suggesting the workers should be simply good and industrialists bad: we should be used to playing straight up evil or at least morally grey characters in games by now. I'm just intrigued to find (or design, failing that) games where there's a role for minorities, the unprivileged, the underclass, the invisibles who don't belong to the dominant discourse. The state of games reflects the state of society. Examining two geek-favourites we can see that (most) pulp has always been undeniably racist and (most) fantasy has always been undeniably reactionary and conservative. Science fiction which has always been promising that it's talking to us about the present has mostly been diluted into a genre that has little to say about anything but the current state of special effects.

Contrasting boardgames to roleplaying games we see that (while they're still super-white and hetero for the most part) the later certainly give the role of blatant power a back-seat to rogues, criminals, fringers & strangers (to paraphrase Rushdie: "The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask."). Sure, the endgame of old D&D was about building a castle and becoming a lord, later expanded upon in Birthright. And there's Reign. You can find a few other games where your character is in a position of power, but they're quite far in between. Then again, games that actually take on the issue, like Steal Away Jordan are extremely rare, too. But RPGs where you play someone at the top are about as few as boardgames where you play someone at the bottom, which is fairly interesting.

If I may venture a theory it's partially because roleplaying games have always been more about a group effort. For purely pragmatic, practical reasons it's easier for PCs to work together, as a team, in one place. Power, on the other hand (whatever Focault might say) is never collective. There can be only one winner. We don't (normally) play kings in RPGs because there can be only one king and we have many players.


  1. Not that many co-op games? Hell, for a while there it seemed like there wasn't much else.[designerid]=&geekitemname=&include[publisherid]=&geekitemname=&range[yearpublished][min]=&range[yearpublished][max]=&range[minage][max]=&floatrange[avgrating][min]=&floatrange[avgrating][max]=&range[numvoters][min]=&floatrange[avgweight][min]=&floatrange[avgweight][max]=&range[numweights][min]=&range[minplayers][max]=&range[maxplayers][min]=&playerrangetype=normal&range[playingtime][max]=&propertyids[]=2023&B1=Submit

  2. Thanks for the link.

    Two caveats:
    1. I didn't say we'll play *anything* co-op and there being *a* co-op game and it being *good* are two different things.

    2. I don't count games with traitor roles as true co-op because we often plain dislike going against each other.

    Either way, Pandemic, Arkham Horror and the D&D Adventure System (Ravenloft et. all), check. We also own Battlestar and I know Pendragon was one of the first games like this but as I mentioned above I don't count them because they rely on a traitor role. I admit I forgot about LotR. So that's four.

    Looking down the list I also see Defenders of the Realm, Space Alert and Ghost Stories but in my defense I've never heard about them, never saw anyone talk about them online and never saw any of them in my FLGS. Still, including them we're at 7.

    What follows on the list is mostly expansions for the aforementioned games, really old unknown stuff from the 80's, pseudo-co-op like HeroQuest and sex dice...Relative to the whole boardgame market that's still a tiny fraction. I'd say that co-op games cover *maybe* a 10% fraction.

    Which is "not that many".