By Steve Wright
The growing appeal of board games has some important lessons for social change and social movements, argues Steve Wright.
The Rise of Board Gaming
Most of us would have played a board game or two when we were younger – perhaps Scrabble or chess or Yahtzee, almost certainly Monopoly. Enjoyed with family and friends, board games (like card games) were a common pastime across much of the twentieth century and before. As our daily lives were increasingly permeated by computer use from the 1980s onwards, new digitally-based forms of gaming emerged: from shoot-’em-ups on the PC to all sorts of play on dedicated devices, whether consoles like Xbox or hand-held gadgets like the Gameboy. More recently, our ever-present phones have provided a popular platform for electronic games like Candy Crush or Pokémon GO.
Given all this, you’d be forgiven for not knowing that there has been a genuine renaissance in board gaming over the past twenty years. And not just board game stylings applied to an electronic screen, but actual cardboard boxes containing cardboard boards with cardboard, wooden or plastic playing pieces, played face-to-face around a table.
Titles like Wingspan, Terraforming Mars, Splendor, Carcassone and Azul have spearheaded this resurgence, fuelling what has become a multi-billion dollar global industry. In important ways, many of the most popular contemporary games utilise innovative mechanics – whether that be cooperation (rather than competition) amongst players, or boards that can be reconfigured from game to game – that make the experience of play quite different to their older, time-honoured counterparts.
According to the website Boardgamegeek, which offers a very useful repository of guides and reviews to thousands of individual titles, there are two main families of board games.
- Mainstream games
First up there are what they call ‘mainstream games’, examples of which include Pictionary, Risk and Twister, typically targeted at families and/or party-goers.
- Hobby games
Then there are ‘hobby games’, often with more complex rules and a narrower appeal. What is striking, however, is that a number of these so-called ‘hobby games’ have demonstrated a real allure audience-wise, winning more and more enthusiasts to their cause. On this score, we could mention not only Wingspan etc., but also the likes of Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride or Forbidden Island – but even this is just scratching the surface.
Social Movement ‘Hobby Games’
Which brings us to the topic of social movements and games, because – you guessed it – the last few years have also seen a small but burgeoning sub-genre of ‘hobby’ games that are directly relevant to activism, social change, and the history of people’s movements.
These games address themes of obvious concern to social movements, starting with forms of domination and oppression in society, and the various manners in which people have come together to challenge and abolish those forms.
More particularly, many of these games seek to model key practices of social movements themselves, from mobilising support to alliance-building and neutralising opposition. Indeed, this modelling is often the explicit intent of the exercise on the part of their creators. As game designer Alex Knight explains, one of his primary motivations is to come up with:
games where you can engage with those times or those places where regular groups of people got together and actually had huge effects in the world.
Let’s look briefly at some examples, all published in the last year, and all taking one or two hours to play to completion: Bloc by Bloc, Land and Freedom, and Stonewall Uprising.
Bloc by Bloc
Designed by Greg Loring-Albright and T. L. Simons, Bloc by Bloc first appeared in 2016, and has since gone through two further editions, the latest being from 2022. Up to four factions work to organise an insurrection in a modern city, battling against the forces of repression and the clock. Left to their own devices, it is almost impossible to win, so each group must work with the others in order to succeed. Victory comes through the successful liberation of key individual spaces like workplaces and government facilities, played across a board whose layout and resources are randomly rearranged at the beginning of each game. There’s also a ‘semi-cooperative’ variant which introduces the possibility/danger that one player may attempt to seize control of the city at the expense of everyone else. While Bloc by Bloc is probably most exciting with four players, it can be enjoyed with fewer people, and there is even a solo version.
Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War
Land and Freedom: The Spanish Revolution and Civil War, created by Alex Knight, was released in early 2023. Unlike Bloc by Bloc, Land and Freedom is set in a specific time and place – Spain during the 1930s – when anarchists, moderates and communist party members found themselves in an unlikely coalition against General Franco and his supporters in Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Assuming one of these anti-fascist identities, players must advance their own specific interests, without at the same time triggering a situation in which everyone loses at the hands of the common enemy. Drawing on unique individual card decks, players are forced to weigh up their goals and priorities. For example, consider the dilemma facing the anarchists: is winning the war at all costs more important than immediately overturning the fundamental inequalities of Spanish society? Like Bloc by Bloc, Land and Freedom can also be played in solo mode, and a lot of thought in terms of game design has gone into making the one player experience enjoyable. But here too things really come into their own with two or more players. It is also worth noting that this game can be played online for free, using the Vassal engine platform.
Stonewall Uprising was designed by Taylor Shuss and published in 2022. This is a two-player game, with a solo variant available. Rather than focusing on the Stonewall riot specifically, the game is set in the United States of the 1960s to the 1980s. One side represents ‘the Pride Movement’, the other ‘the Man’ bent on destroying Pride altogether. Stonewall Uprising combines the mechanics of card hand management and event tracks found in Land and Freedom with dice play, in an original game system that looks both promising and intriguing. I say ‘looks’, because to date it is the only one of these three games that I have not yet played, even if I hope to remedy that soon! Yet again there is a balancing act to consider, as the two players fight it out on the three fronts of ‘systemic’, ‘individual’ and ‘public’ support.
[This image is taken from Dan Thurot’s thoughtful review of the game]
I hope these snapshots have given you a taste of what is shaping up to be an expanding ‘social movements’ field within the world of board games. In future articles, I intend to explore these and other social movement-adjacent games at more length. As I do so, there are also some fundamental questions to be asked:
- How well do such games actually represent not only the dynamics of social movements, but also the issues which they confront?
- What (if anything) can be learned from playing these games, both by social movement participants and the people they seek to draw into their activities?
- And given that a key part of game playing is meant to be enjoyment, are any of these games actually fun?
If you have any thoughts on these or other social movement-related games, you can reach me via the Commons Contact Form. Game on!
A final note for those who want to explore all this further: apart from Boardgamegeek, there are plenty of useful online resources concerning board games, from podcasts and videos to text-based reviews. As a first stop, I would recommend:
- The Shut Up & Sit Down website, which encompasses all of the above in a knowledgeable yet friendly and light-hearted manner.
- Fred Serval’s YouTube channel Homo Ludens, which recently hosted an informative panel discussion of colonialism and games.
- Interested in a science fiction novel that asks some of the same questions? Check out Iain Banks’ The Player of Games.