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There Will Be Games

Throughout time, terrible things have happened: plagues, wars, colonialism, genocide, executions, experimentation, extinctions, terrorism, abuse and many other atrocities. Some are still going on, most are condemned and they all evoke strong emotions in us. So when board games, which most of us see as a fun way to spend time, use these terrible events as their background, their setting, it seems to be a contradiction and it becomes very important how the game treats its subject matter. In this article, I want to find out if board games can treat atrocities in a sensitive and respectful manner that allows us to learn about these topics better and grow our understanding.

Let me start with The Cost by Spielworxx, which I recently received a review copy of and which sparked the idea of writing this article.

The game is all about asbestos, which was long seen as a miracle material and widely used as a fire retardant throughout the world. As we probably all know, many people who worked in the asbestos industry died of cancer, but companies refused to admit there was any link between asbestos and cancer, until in 1987 the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer declared asbestos a human carcinogen.

Slowly and over time countries banned the production and use of asbestos and large projects began to remove asbestos from buildings and anywhere else where it could pose a danger to health. Some countries took longer to respond and continued to mine and mill asbestos into the late 2010s and a handful of countries even continue to do so to this day.

In The Cost, you are one of a number of companies that try to make a profit from mining, milling and selling asbestos. You compete with other players to make the most money by the end of the game. As a player, you are focused on producing the most and getting the best price. Overall The Cost feels like many other economic simulation board games.

However, this game is set against the background of asbestos and whenever you decide to mine or mill asbestos you, as the player, have to decide if you want to do so safely, which costs resources - or unsafely, which means the death of one of your worker meeples, which stand in for probably dozens of real workers.

At the start of the game, especially if this is your first game of The Cost, chances are you are forced to mine and mill unsafely. Later on, greed may lead your decision making, or you're just very competitive and want to win, so you continue to allow unsafe practices in your mines and mills.

Now, the game isn't called The Cost for nothing. Every dead worker meeple costs you money, which I think represents lawsuits and the resulting court orders to pay damages. So you soon realize that you need to switch to safe mining and milling as a matter of urgency. The game seems to guide you through the history of what actually happened, as companies had to admit that asbestos was very dangerous and started to dramatically improve their working conditions.

Playing the game really does make you think about the decisions you take and how they relate to real events from recent history, which shows that The Cost really aims to deal with the topic sensitively and respectfully, rather than trying to make a fun and entertaining game.

Yet, The Cost goes one step further to really help the player understand a lot more about asbestos. The rulebook starts with a brief history of the events around the WHO declaring asbestos a carcinogen, continues with a definition of the mineral, or rather the group of minerals which collectively are called asbestos and then describes its health effects. The rulebook continues to explain more about asbestos throughout, so that you can link the actions you take in the game to real-world activities. It ends by asking players to check how many people died during the game and who actually won - if anyone.

So I think it's vital that all players read at least the introduction in the rulebook, but should also be told the additional information that puts their in-game actions into context of what actually happened. That's what will create a full emotional experience of the game that is otherwise really cleverly constructed.

I am yet to play it with others and I can't wait to see how people will respond. Cancer is a very sensitive topic, of course, and I'm not sure if all of my friends will feel comfortable playing The Cost, which I can understand.

I had the same response when I learned about Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr by Hub Games. I've still not played the game myself, because I feel I can't deal with the subject matter. I guess for me, it's different when dealing with the death of an individual person, who has a name and about whose life you learn more as the game progresses. It creates a much stronger and more intimate emotional attachment.

I think the game would also remind me that my parents are not getting any younger, as they say, and won't be there forever. It's something I don't really want to think about, especially because I live in a different country and couldn't be there with them very quickly, if something happened. So I have decided that the game isn't for me. However, from everything I have heard and seen, the game is really good and deals with death in a sensitive and respectful manner.

Another game I want to look at is This War of Mine by Awaken Realms. Again, I haven't played it myself, but from what I know, it deals with war from the perspective of civilians who are trapped in a besieged city and have to live from hour to hour, day to day and try and stay alive as best they can.

To me, war is much further removed and I would like to play This War of Mine myself at some point, even though I understand that some of the events you encounter in the game are really quite gruesome - and that makes me hesitant, because it creates that connection to an individual person again, that is much harder to deal with.

Yet, what makes this game so interesting is that it's not your usual war game where you direct military units to win battles. Instead, you are civilians who have probably lost everything and simply try to survive. The game isn't trying to portray a specific war or battle or other conflict. It seems to want you to think about the impact of war in general - in the past, the present and maybe the future. It focuses on the human element, which makes it so powerful and meaningful.

Of course, there are many games that don't treat terrible events from history or the present in a sensitive or respectful manner. One that seems to have created the biggest controversy relatively recently is Scramble for Africa by GMT Games. There have been a number of articles about this in various place - see links below for some examples.

The game was clearly ignoring the historic significance of the invasion of Africa and treated the atrocities committed in the name of colonisation only as a footnote. GMT issued their own statement to announce that they would remove the game from their catalogue, but didn't really address how terribly the game dealt with these terrible events, merely saying that "the game is out of step with what most eurogame players want."

However, the game did get removed, which is better than continuing to profit from a product that sweeps atrocities under the carpet in the name of fun and entertainment for players. So, yes, unfortunately there are still many games that really should no longer be on the market.

Of course, in this article I never touched on how games deal with representation and appropriation, which merits its own article. Let me just say at this stage, that these are also areas that board games need to deal with correctly and respectfully and the journey ahead is still long.

So let me end with my usual questions to you. Have you played any games that deal with difficult subject matters? How well do you think these games dealt with them? Have you played a game recently that you always thought was a lot of fun, but now realized that it's actually really inappropriate or maybe even offensive and probably should no longer be on the market? I would really love to hear your thoughts about this topic. Please share them in the comments below.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #314302 22 Sep 2020 00:13
First, my position is that any game could be across the line for anyone. And that's ok and a personal choice. I wouldn't expect to bring The Cost to a game night and just spring it on people without chatting with them first. Not everyone wants to go through this sort of thing, and maybe their personal situation or experiences means this is over the line.

Your article topic has been on my mind already, because Dan Thurot talked about this topic recently too, so it's out there in the discourse because of The Cost: spacebiff.com/2020/09/17/talking-games-10/

For me, the most powerful part of games is the mechanical element---which means that good games can use mechanics to illustrate something important or meaningful through play, perhaps even something that isn't obvious on first glance. My personal feeling is that games can have a role in illustrating historical situations or ethical quandries. Honestly, in some ways, most economic games are basically about the dilemma between individual and collective rationality/efficiency under capitalism. But this was the part of Dan's article that spoke to me most, and probably comes closest to where I draw my own line:

"In other words, both games are preoccupied with immorality. The difference is that The Cost portrays immorality for the sake of drawing attention to the harm it inflicts while Cards Against Humanity endorses immorality by asking players to speak harmful phrases. The first functions as education as well as entertainment. And while I’m not interested in overselling the problems with the second, it’s hard for me to come up with a net positive for its inclusion at a game night."

So by necessity, for me, there is a certain subjective distinction between games I think draw attention or illustrate something horrible to a purpose with mechanics, and those that do it just to do it and gleefully show it to you. It's a fine line, obviously. And it *will* differ person to person.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #314304 22 Sep 2020 00:39
“ However, the game did get removed, which is better than continuing to profit from a product that sweeps atrocities under the carpet in the name of fun and entertainment for players.‘

It should be noted that they never profited from it because it was never published.
ratpfink's Avatar
ratpfink replied the topic: #314306 22 Sep 2020 01:34

Gary Sax wrote: For me, the most powerful part of games is the mechanical element---which means that good games can use mechanics to illustrate something important or meaningful through play, perhaps even something that isn't obvious on first glance. My personal feeling is that games can have a role in illustrating historical situations or ethical quandries.

What games come to mind for you that do a good job at this? Honestly curious since I have a hard time coming up with many. I'm usually focused on the mechanics and competitiveness of games when I'm playing(otherwise, what's the point?). We both play a lot of wargames, but I've never felt anything like a moral dilemma in them.

In any game, won't the mechanics drive your decision? "Well, I could turn my coworker in for stealing office supplies for 3VP, but I get a 4VP friendship token if I let it go."

Maybe the best thing I've played that seems to have more under the covers is The Grizzled. Not having been in combat, and therefore now talking out of my ass, sometimes I think The Grizzled seems to simulate war more than any "consim" I've never played.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #314307 22 Sep 2020 03:16
The Grizzled is great, love what that game does. The trick there I guess is that that simple mechanism of giving support does a lot. What I love most though is also that frustration that comes first; there's always someone who just does something STUPID - like play a card that means they are arrogant or something, and you're like, how could you do that. But then, you still rally round them anyway. It just feels right.

However, in terms of those more competitive situations, for me yeah, I still go for the win, but it makes me think about the motivations and so on. Which is what I imagine The Cost does. You are not expected to drop out and try to lose to keep people alive (a la Train, perhaps) - no, you are expected to keep on being a bastard. And that's kind of the point; what are the the things that blind people, enable them to carry on, in real life? In the game, you might be saying, "well, I just want to win, right?" - what are the CEOs of the asbestos company saying?
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #314308 22 Sep 2020 05:55
Off the top of my head, not all historical or atrocity adjacent I'd say these games gave me some perspective on something in real life because I played through them or at least worked through them mechanically:

Greed Inc
Food Chain Magnate
Antiquity
Archipelago (waffle on this one)
John Company
Pax Pamir
Pax Renaissance
Navajo Wars/Comancheria
Sidereal Confiuence
Twilight Struggle
Fields of Fire

There are also wargames that revealed something specific about the campaigns themselves I wasn't grasping through just reading about it.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #314309 22 Sep 2020 08:05
Yeah Archipelago is an interesting one.
I appreciated that it was trying - I think it was trying. Having indigenous people be a consideration is a start - and a thought provoker (for me, at least - the thought being, how do you model this stuff? What other voices are not heard in games with historical settings? It was also nice to be playing a game where that early colonial stuff is precarious, as opposed to a kind of natural progression).
In many ways it was like what I understand The Cost to be. Except instead of a bottom line being the ultimate motivation, it's your survival that is that driving force. And then the "temples" thing - it's less egregious than the brown colonists of Puerto Rico or whatever, but I do wish they'd just called them churches - I mean, that's the way this worked; subdue indigenous people with religion.

Also, the thing that still gets me about those Eklund games is that their apparent intention - the thesis they carry - pretty much backfires for me. I don't think "Wow! Thank goodness in real life the bankers won and Europe didn't become a backward islamic theocracy!" (which is what you might think the game wants you to think), I think "holy crap, imagine a world in which financiers control all of the politics".
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #314310 22 Sep 2020 08:40
Gary, I would add Kolejka to your list. It is set in a more recent time than most and illustrates the challenge of buying needed household goods in communist Poland. The game was published and designed(?) with the Polish Institute of Remembrance as a bit of a history capsule. It was interesting to see that the cards played to manipulate the queues for stores represented common behaviors of the time.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #314311 22 Sep 2020 09:15

the_jake_1973 wrote: Gary, I would add Kolejka to your list. It is set in a more recent time than most and illustrates the challenge of buying needed household goods in communist Poland. The game was published and designed(?) with the Polish Institute of Remembrance as a bit of a history capsule. It was interesting to see that the cards played to manipulate the queues for stores represented common behaviors of the time.

I totally want to play this now.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #314314 22 Sep 2020 09:50
I played wargames when I was a teenager, and war is a relatively tame umbrella word for all kinds of horrible human behavior that happens when countries go to war. But most of those games kept the action zoomed out to a strategic distance. Now my preference is for ameritrash board games, especially games with a horror theme. So that encompasses a whole slew of deviant behavior, including murder, necromancy, cult rituals, slavery, demons, cannibalism, and various sorts of mayhem. I even have four games about serial killers, and none of them feature Jack the Ripper. I think that our current culture is exceptionally sensitive compared to previous decades that I have survived, so it's entirely possible for people to go out of their way to react badly to a variety of topics. It generally hasn't been a problem for me, because I would rather play games with people that I already enjoy being around, even if that means that I play less board games than some of my friends.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #314319 22 Sep 2020 11:15

WadeMonnig wrote:

the_jake_1973 wrote: Gary, I would add Kolejka to your list. It is set in a more recent time than most and illustrates the challenge of buying needed household goods in communist Poland. The game was published and designed(?) with the Polish Institute of Remembrance as a bit of a history capsule. It was interesting to see that the cards played to manipulate the queues for stores represented common behaviors of the time.

I totally want to play this now.


There is a module on Tabletop Simulator for it.
Nodens's Avatar
Nodens replied the topic: #314323 22 Sep 2020 11:40

the_jake_1973 wrote:

WadeMonnig wrote:

the_jake_1973 wrote: Gary, I would add Kolejka to your list. It is set in a more recent time than most and illustrates the challenge of buying needed household goods in communist Poland. The game was published and designed(?) with the Polish Institute of Remembrance as a bit of a history capsule. It was interesting to see that the cards played to manipulate the queues for stores represented common behaviors of the time.

I totally want to play this now.


There is a module on Tabletop Simulator for it.

It's a great game.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #314325 22 Sep 2020 12:00
That "Papers Please" video game comes to mind, where you have to juggle doing your job (border control) with compassion for folks crossing without authorization. A good game can present moral quandaries as game play mechanics, quandaries can target the characters or the player.

To me, commenting that wargames minimize real human suffering falls into the "no fun allowed" trap often thrown at liberals that want ALL MEDIA ALL THE TIME to address social ills, real or perceived. But sometimes it is just a game. Wargames are often playing into power fantasies of the players and do gloss over virtually every aspect of warfare to focus on just the act of physically fighting. Nothing wrong with it so long as some political figure isn't using Seal Team Flix to determine whether or not they could successfully send in a special forces team to rescue some hostages while ignoring all the advice of their actual military advisors.

Would I play a game that depicted human sex trafficking? Maybe if it was from the perspective of police catching them.

If there was a wargame that allowed you to sacrifice a unit in a no retreat suicide attack, would any player feel remorse? What about an industrial worker game where you could make the workers all pull triple shifts to get extra production? There has to be a negative gameplay consequence for this or else I'm pretty sure most EVERY player would avail themselves of these tactics and not even think about the real world behavior they are modeling.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #314327 22 Sep 2020 12:04

mc wrote: Yeah Archipelago is an interesting one.
I appreciated that it was trying - I think it was trying.


Yeah, I think the ideas in it surrounding colonization are actually quite interesting but the art/wrapper is really pretty gross and makes you doubt if the whole thing was intentional or not.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #314328 22 Sep 2020 12:06

Nodens wrote:

the_jake_1973 wrote:

WadeMonnig wrote:

the_jake_1973 wrote: Gary, I would add Kolejka to your list. It is set in a more recent time than most and illustrates the challenge of buying needed household goods in communist Poland. The game was published and designed(?) with the Polish Institute of Remembrance as a bit of a history capsule. It was interesting to see that the cards played to manipulate the queues for stores represented common behaviors of the time.

I totally want to play this now.


There is a module on Tabletop Simulator for it.

It's a great game.


Kolejka is the only worker-placement game that I've come away from wanting to play again, because it's not about the placement, but about the displacement. Kolejka is a worker-displacement game and I don't know of any other. Given its thematic choice it really tells a story.

At some point a game has to have play in it. I think the new breed of despicable theme games (and I don't use that term to disparage, just don't know what else to call them) suffers from taking themselves too seriously, and I think that exacerbates the problem instead of alleviating it. Freedom The Underground Railroad is positively dismal in its theme especially when things go south. A game like Infamous Traffic where you can literally win a nice hat by addicting thousands of people to heroin has an absurdity to it that more ably brings on introspection.

I think historic details are taught better by Saving Private Ryan. I think historic lessons are taught better by Catch-22. Games are a medium like any other, they need to decide what the goal of the setting is.

Kolejka is much more Catch-22 than Saving Private Ryan.
jeb's Avatar
jeb replied the topic: #314338 22 Sep 2020 12:31
NEXUS OPS is about mega-corporations competing to exploit the resources and fauna of some foreign world. They are riding half of them and recruiting the others to fight on their behalf. It's basically ANGOLA writ neon.

I have a lot of trouble, personally, playing PHANTOM LEADER, FIELDS OF FIRE and the like. I would not make good officer material, because I don't like telling some folks to go die because I need to be the boss of that hill. This may relate to my failures as a roleplayer. I always just roleplay me. Maybe "me" is a role I am playing? Anyway, I can't become Lt Hoogah and tell some grunts to get fucked because of "orders." I'm Lt. Jeb and I know they're going to die so let's play something else.

PAPERS PLEASE is a wonderful game that hits this "Sentitive Topics" theme amazingly well, and I applaud Jason10mm for bringing that one in.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #314349 22 Sep 2020 12:57

jason10mm wrote: If there was a wargame that allowed you to sacrifice a unit in a no retreat suicide attack, would any player feel remorse?


I have occasionally felt a slight twinge of regret when I played the Expendable Unit card in the Shadowfist ccg. Those poor monsters have an almost comical look of concern as they are ordered into the burning building.

jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #314366 22 Sep 2020 14:46
You know, this topic made me think of a popular and light hearted game that really glosses over true atrocious horror. That game is Small World

Think about it. You play an invading band of mauruders that cleanse the land of small indigenous tribes. Then you drive your people to maximum expansion and abandon them to eventual genocide when you move on to a newer shinier race. It is all coated in sugary sweet cartoon graphics but it is a horrible abstraction of colonialism.

It even extends to race selection. Less appealing races (representing less privilege) have to be heavily incentivized with end game victory points in order to be chosen.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #314368 22 Sep 2020 14:56

jason10mm wrote: You know, this topic made me think of a popular and light hearted game that really glosses over true atrocious horror. That game is Small World


I've heard that it was based on Vinci, which used a real map of Europe?
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #314375 22 Sep 2020 15:39
Sons of Anarchy's theme (setting, whatever) didn't sit well with some folks I knew. It doesn't say "dope" in the rules, but it isn't coffee beans in those little packages*. There's also a meth lab, a "Cut and Bag" location, and a brothel.

Obviously there's a limit, we all have one, and I guess you'd better ask first if you're playing something like that.

*I just spent $500 to have my car repaired last week, and I thought I got off cheap. It cost $2000+ to have my transmission rebuilt, and I thought that was getting off cheap. Those SoA guys could've probably made more money with less gunfire by fixing transmissions than selling dope.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #314376 22 Sep 2020 15:41
^^Which is itself based on History of the World: boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/224/history-world/images

edit: GOTTEN
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #314377 22 Sep 2020 15:50
I didn't know History of the World was about dope-dealing bikers. Who knew? :)
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #314379 22 Sep 2020 15:55

RobertB wrote: *I just spent $500 to have my car repaired last week, and I thought I got off cheap. It cost $2000+ to have my transmission rebuilt, and I thought that was getting off cheap. Those SoA guys could've probably made more money with less gunfire by fixing transmissions than selling dope.


I don't know if the Sons specifically fixed transmissions, but they operated a legit auto repair shop practically next door to their clubhouse.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #314381 22 Sep 2020 16:00
The theme drift just goes to show that ALL games are abstracted and there is really no reason to be emotionally distraught over any board game unless it prompts real-world actions.

Video games have had horrible content for decades and no one (well, few) bats an eye about a game that requires you to kill several thousand nominal enemies on screen. Or the Civilization games that commodify government systems with terrible legacies into simple game stats fit for exploitation.

Even Chess has a fundamental class system of poor sacrificial pawns that have very little chance for survival or upward mobility. Everyone identifies as the King so I guess it is ok that every other piece dies in combat to protect him?
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #314384 22 Sep 2020 16:10

Shellhead wrote:

RobertB wrote: *I just spent $500 to have my car repaired last week, and I thought I got off cheap. It cost $2000+ to have my transmission rebuilt, and I thought that was getting off cheap. Those SoA guys could've probably made more money with less gunfire by fixing transmissions than selling dope.


I don't know if the Sons specifically fixed transmissions, but they operated a legit auto repair shop practically next door to their clubhouse.

My impression was that they "operated" it. Probably would be an awesome place to launder all that money, come to think of it.

My mind is still blown over the transmission shop quoting $8000 to rebuild a Nissan CVT.

Anyway, to stay on thread, I don't think I 100% agree with jason10mm above. I'm not going to play Concentration Camp Tycoon, no matter how great the game is.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #314392 22 Sep 2020 16:57

jason10mm wrote: Video games have had horrible content for decades and no one (well, few) bats an eye about a game that requires you to kill several thousand nominal enemies on screen.


Great point. When I sat down to play more Vampire: Bloodlines the other day, I played a vampire with a fire axe who spent an hour running around an insane asylum, chopping up knife-wielding patients. At one point, I got lost, but was able to figure out where I had been by the fresh blood stains on the walls and floors.