Playing Oppression

ZOC book cover

The MIT GameLab is a combined game design program, research centre and development tank for games that explore the use of play in human development, education and communication.

One topic of current research, which has attracted a bit of popular press and comment recently as well, is the structure and functions of games with respect to colonialism. Research on the topic is being done by the Mary Flanagan (author of the brilliant Critical Play: Radical Game Design and of the final chapter in the Zones of Control anthology) and Mikael Jakobsson.

The product will be a book called Playing Oppression. The authors say:

The title for this project comes from an idea that euro games offer some of the excitement of the periods they depict (sails, discovery, heroism, fame, and fortune) but not too much through their gameplay and physical pieces, by hiding the bloody end of the sword and only engaging with foreign cultures as passive representations that can be neatly sorted into a box between plays.

http://gamelab.mit.edu/research/games-and-colonialism/

Forthcoming from MIT Press!

And bound to be interesting.

 

Qwexit: a scenario for Canadian “Civil War”

 

CCW qwexit variant cover

Variant cover by Cavan Cunningham!

My non-Canadian readers may or may not know that on October 21, 2019, Canada had a general election. The incumbent party, the Liberal Party of Canada, was returned to power, but with fewer seats in the House of Commons. This strong-minority government was the most likely outcome predicted by most media outlets and polls, at least in the final ten days before the election itself, but two things were unusual:

  • the resurgence of the Bloc Quebecois, a party that ran candidates only in Quebec and whose platform includes a drastically altered relationship between Quebec and the federal government; and
  • the near complete dominance of representation by Conservative Party of Canada candidates in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta (though the popular vote was more diverse), combined with the accession to power in recent years by right-wing provincial governments there that have been quite vocal about the imbalance of power in the current federal-provincial relationship, at least where the Prairie provinces are concerned.

Neither of these movements is new. I recall attending a meeting of the “Western Canada Concept” party in Victoria BC in 1980, for the sake of research – I was then in my high school’s debating club and we were going to debate a resolution on Western separatism. The meeting was led by WCC founder Doug Christie, who gained notoriety by defending Ernst Zundel for denying the Holocaust, got slung out of the WCC for being too extreme and backed other right-wing movements (including a provincial WCC party in BC) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doug_Christie_(lawyer)). And it was the surge to power by the Parti Quebecois in the mid-70s that prompted James Dunnigan to design Canadian ‘Civil War’, the sixth and last of the SPI Power Politics series of games, in 1976-77. 

For obvious reasons Canadian Civil War was not popular in the US, and there were few Canadian wargamers to buy up the remaining copies, so it has survived as more or less an orphan game with no updates or scenarios save a “Meech Lake” variant that ran in #23 of The Canadian Wargamers Journal in July 1990. Like many other Dunnigan designs, the game has some interesting mechanics in it, presented in a less appealing framework – and a requirement for four and only four players for the full game.

So, after having a look at the electoral map after October 21, I thought I would try my hand at an updating and variant scenario for the present situation.

The first thing I ought to say is that I do not think that the country of Canada itself is at serious risk. The Bloc Quebecois rhetoric is far less heated than in the 1970s, and it is unlikely that there will be any more referenda on sovereignty-association; the last one was in 1995 and I think it will remain so. I also think that the Western separatist talk is mostly that, just talk, that will be used by the premiers of Alberta and Saskatchewan when and how it pleases them (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-canada-wexit-analysis-1.5335328). Not surprisingly, the founders of the “Wexit Alberta” movement have been identified as far-right activists, including a former spokesman for the Prairie Freedom Movement, a Western separatist organization that preceded this one (https://north99.org/2019/10/25/wexit-far-right/) (https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/59na9q/wexit-founders-are-far-right-conspiracy-theorists ) . Also not surprisingly, “bot” and aggregator activity has considerably boosted the signal and apparent numbers of the movement in Alberta ( https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/wexit-company-says-bots-aggregators-boosted-alberta-separatist-movement-on-twitter-1.4650507) so when people talk about tens or hundreds of thousands of signatures on an online petition, those signatures weigh about as much as that petition does.

However, we have never let facts get in the way of an interesting game problem, so the following is presented as a thought-experiment expressed through a rather old Dunnigan game: the “Qwexit” scenario. We hope you’re able to give it a try.

qwexit-4 nov  introduction and scenario rules

Cdn Civ War ctrs 2 nov  new counters

CCW var cards 30 oct  new cards

ccw spi ctrs, changes SPI conversion kit: if you happen to have a punched copy of Canadian Civil War, and don’t want to make up a whole new set of counters, this sheet gives you images for a small set of replacement counters and notes the changes to the Political Opportunity Cards.

EDITED TO ADD (3 November):

This may end up to be a bit of a work-in-progress… I was making up a set of the new counters last night and a thought struck me that should have struck me before.

One thing that bothered me a bit about this game is that one Interest Group is much like any other – so why not map them to their (most of the time) logically prime interests, and give them a game function?

So, game function is that an Interest Group gets a favourable column shift on the Contest Table when attacking or defending an Issue that it maps to: 1-1 becomes 2-1 on the attack, 3-1 becomes 2-1 when defending, eg.. Recall though, that an Interest Group cannot control an Issue by itself, only a Constituency piece can.

INTEREST GROUP -> ISSUE (# issue chits)

Chemical -> Healthcare (1)
Farmers -> Environment (2)
Francophone -> Language (1)
Hydro -> Territory (2)
Indigenous -> Indigenous (1)
Intellectual -> Education (2)
Manufacturing -> Industry (3)
Media -> Media (3)
Petro -> Finance/Banking (2)
Transport -> Transport (1)
Unions -> Immigration (1)
Wood -> Tariff/Trade (2)

Most of these are fairly logical I think, and cover all of the Issues except Foreign Affairs and Taxes.

I thought of letting the Prime Minister match to Foreign Affairs, since the PM counter isn’t the PM him/herself but the Prime Minister’s Office and functionaries/staff, who wield even more power than they did in 1976, but decided to leave it consistently Interest Groups, which don’t change when there is a change of government. Also, Taxes didn’t have a logical single IG match, quite complex so best to leave it as it was, I thought.

Anyway, if you give this scenario a try, add this small change to the rules. Or even retrofit it to the original game.

“STRIKE! The Game of Worker Rebellion” is now on Kickstarter

 

Backer #68!

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1713701812/strike-the-game-of-worker-rebellion

STRIKE! is a strategic, cooperative, and beautifully-illustrated board game for 2 – 4 players about building a city-wide rebellion to stop a mega-corporation’s takeover. It was created in a collaboration between The TESA Collective, a publisher of games about changing the world, and Jobs with Justice, a leading labor rights organization.

Complete description of play, videos showing the game, a preview of the rulebook, etc. etc. all at the above link. Rules are pretty short but gameplay looks interesting and so do the components.

Basic pledge for a copy of the game is US$35 plus $5 off shipping; stretch goals include T-shirts, cheaper copies of TESA Collective’s other radical games (Rise Up, Space Cats Fight Fascism) and notoriety.

1571760968975-full-board-action-shot-credit-aaron-simmons

Image: TESA Collective.

EDIT: this piece in VICE magazine (US) underlines the irony of how this game on solidarity and union-building is being funded through Kickstarter, which right now is fighting against exactly this thing in its labour force, and how TESA Collective and Jobs for Justice are using it.

https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/pa7wyg/this-board-game-about-labor-revolts-is-protesting-kickstarter-on-kickstarter

(oh, and as of this posting they are 62% of the way to their goal, after 36 hours)

ANOTHER EDIT: As of the afternoon of the 25th, the game reached “funded”, with 27 days to go!

More from TESA Collective: “STRIKE! The Game of Worker Rebellion” and what you can do to help Kickstarter do the right thing.

smile_drone_detail

Image: some art from the upcoming game.

I got an email today from the folks at TESA Collective: the Kickstarter campaign for their new game “STRIKE! The Game of Worker Rebellion” begins next Wednesday, October 16.

[Edited To Add: technical difficulties have postponed the launch to Monday, October 21.]

I intend to be there, and on that day I’ll post a link in case you were looking as well.  TESA also added something that I’ve been wondering about, since I saw a short news clip a couple of weeks ago. Quoted from the email:

We Support the Workers of Kickstarter – And We Want You to Do So Too!

Recently, the workers of Kickstarter started organizing a union – and they have faced resistance from Kickstarter’s management. We absolutely stand with the workers of Kickstarter. You can read our full statement of support here.

The workers of Kickstarter have asked people to continue launching campaigns and supporting campaigns on the platform while showing their support for the workers and their unionization drive. As always, we will follow the lead of people building movements.

So that’s exactly what we’re we’re going to do: We’re not just going to make this a Kickstarter campaign; we’re going to make this a labor campaign too. We are going to use this campaign as a way to lift up the voices of the Kickstarter workers. When we launch the Kickstarter campaign, we will launch it with a number of ways you can support the Kickstarter workers as well.

In addition, we’ve teamed up with Jobs with Justice to make it so funds from this game go to benefit real campaigns fighting for working people. When the campaign launches mid-next week, we hope you’ll share the game with your friends to help us raise funds for JWJ’s work!

In solidarity,

The TESA Collective

I respect this, and I hope that you’ll consider this in your decision to back this game (and the workers of Kickstarter).

What’s in a name?

 

scheldtmapsnip

Vlissingen? Flushing? Vlissienge? Flessingue?

When GMT put up notice of China’s War going to P500 on their Facebook page, there was quite a bit of comment. One user, Hank Wong, made this point about nomenclature, when the topic of “Kuomintang/Guomindang” came up:

Hank Wong While Hanyu pinyin is linguistically more accurate, as Ron mentions, using it does have political implications, especially among people of mainland China/Taiwan/HK background. It was the system adopted and promoted by the Chinese Communists, and so using it can give the appearance that the game is from, or favors, the Communist point of view. Wade-Giles is not as accurate, and it was the method preferred by the KMT/Nationalists, but it was also how the Western world knew those names and locations during the actual World War II period itself. In between, I’ve seen newer history books compromise by one of two methods: (1) keeping the “famous names” in WG and then translate more obscure names as PY, or (2) Communist names in PY and Nationalist names in WG.

Interesting compromise, and one that demands more background knowledge from the reader than normal.

I have had similar discussions in the past with other people, when designing WW II games on the Balkans occupation and the Scheldt campaign… do I use the name of the city as it is now, or the one it had at the beginning of the War, or while it was under German/Italian/Hungarian occupation, or the name Flemish people use for it…? Any choices I do make will be slammed by some and ignored by others.

In general, I try to use the name that was in the most common usage at the time the game takes place, in a form as close as possible to the original language, not some Anglicized version… which is why I put pronunciation guides in the playbooks for A Distant Plain and Colonial Twilight. But I do slip up (for example, “Algiers” on the Colonial Twilight map should have been rendered “Alger”, as Joseph Vanden Borre reminds me every time I see him at CSW Expo) and even the method of pronunciation I choose has political implications, you see.

I think perhaps in this case I will do my best to avoid this linguistic and political stickiness and refer to the government player as “Nationalists” or “Nationalist Party”, since that is the English equivalent of the Chinese word no matter how you pronounce it. And Beiping/Peiping was renamed Beijing from 1937-45 while it was under Japanese occupation (and renamed so again in 1949 by the CCP, after 4 years of being Beiping again), so for the sake of historical accuracy/contemporaneous currency I will use Beijing.

 

Political Boardgames; Italian Rumbles

769397473a45656dcdd59cb5e124d58a

Interesting artifact of the Spanish Civil War: Anarchist paper cut-out soldiers.

http://organisemagazine.org.uk/2019/07/23/the-boardgame-is-political-rbg/

Organise! magazine in the UK has published a short piece on radicalism and conflict in board games. Games cited include Monopoly, Class Struggle, Corteo! and RIOT! Cast the First Stone.

  • Monopoly (not The Landlord’s Game) is an example of how fangs get pulled, and has become a silly set-collection game
  • Class Struggle is dull (sorry, but it is) and out of print
  • Corteo! is interesting but long out of print and was only ever available in Italian
  • RIOT! is a newer game (2015), available from noboardgames, an Italian outfit (but rules in English are available)

RIOT! is interesting in that it is a 2-4 player game, with up to four factions: Autonomists, Anarchists, Nationalists and Police. Game mechanics revolve around movement and combat in the streets of a district of a fictional city, with the various goals of occupying buildings (for the Autonomists and Anarchists), confronting the protester forces (for the police) or accomplishing a secret goal (for the Nationalists). There is a good amount of asymmetry between players, with different player powers.

I got a copy with minimal trouble from the UK some time ago, but shipping is expensive. At the end of 2018 noboardgames made a print and play version of RIOT! available on Boardgamegeek, and Organise! magazine will publish a version of it in its next printed issue. I recommend it to your attention.

https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/177356/riot-cast-first-stone

Other boardgames I would recommend on the theme are:

Funny thing about that last one: I just went to the noboardgames website and found that they had put up Battle of Seattle on their own PnP section in October 2018!

https://noboardgames.com/2018/10/12/printplay-section/

They didn’t ask but no worries, the game is meant to be out there and it’s already been “copylefted” by some other radical sites. I don’t mind, since they left my name on it and did not alter the files at all. Oh, not only that, they have a link to a Spanish-language translation of the rules, which I was not aware existed.

Other games available at the section are their own RIOT! and Suffragetto, an interesting artifact.

Scramble scramble

https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/vb9gd9/a-cancelled-board-game-revealed-how-colonialism-inspires-and-haunts-games

So, this has been lighting up sections of the BGGverse for the last week… in case you have not heard, or are trawling through this blog years from the time it was posted:

  • GMT Games put up for P500 a game called Scramble for Africa in February. From the ad copy, it seems to have been in broad terms a “3X” game (Explore- Expand-  Exploit) as opposed to a “4X” game ( -Exterminate) where European powers enter the Dark Continent, found colonies, interfere with each other, etc.
  • After GMT posted the developer’s notes at the end of March with some more specifics, it emerged that this game was shall we say a bit light on historical accuracy and completeness – the native population was more or less the background on top of which the players drew their designs.
  • An increasing amount of adverse commentary on Twitter, Facebook, Boardgamegeek, and other spots led GMT to pull this off the P500 list, with a very measured and reasonable explanation and apology from the publisher.

People are still yelling about it, but more in defence of or offence against their own straw men. Some decried it as bowing to the mob, erasure of unpopular opinions, censorship, my god this is the beginning of the end what’s next erasing the Nazis soon they will come to pry all my wargames from my overheated flabby hands… never mind, you can imagine all this yourself (and if you can’t, there is a thread on BGG that is over 1,000 posts long now, counting the unusually large fraction of ones deleted for personal attacks and abuse).

Others had more measured and thoughtful responses. The link above is a much better explanation of the event and what it means than I can write; go have a look. It also gives due credit to the thoughtful games GMT can and does produce. Colonial Twilight, Navajo Wars and Comancheria all get praise for handling complex issues well, as do Freedom: the Underground Railroad and This Guilty Land, two games by other publishers.

Again, I did not have a chance to learn very much about the game, but it seems it was too cavalier and light a treatment of the topic to be appealing to the strong-history crowd, and not satisfying enough for the theme/history-be-damned, strong-play crowd. So, a sound business decision, and one that is GMT’s and only GMT’s to make.

We should not shy away from historical controversy, for that is the most direct way history teaches us it’s still there and still valuable. But it has to be done in a productive way, that advances the state of play. Obviously, this game did not do that.

Probably more than a few people have commented that if the game were rethemed and placed on a distant planet as “Scramble for Afraxic”, they might have  had a goer on their hands… sometimes that works. GMT has a few of these 4X in space games in their stable, and they sell very well… I suppose they are good games too, but I don’t play much science fiction stuff anymore. But the point is that there is sufficient distance from what is going on, even more so than the usual abstraction of playing a game about something, to not bother people.