Class Kerfuffle by C. H. Monster

It seems that a leading leftist publication, Jacobin Magazine, has gotten into the board game business.  In Class War, the Jacobin Board Game, it’s Capitalists versus Workers.  At first glance, the contestants of Class War roll dice and play cards to enable or prevent the unionization of workplaces.  Is Jacobin making a serious effort to convert the left-skeptical with this game?  The Kickstarter page credits the magazine’s art director, Ben Koditschek, with its primary development.  I speculate that the designer showed the game to the decision makers at Jacobin and they effectively said “why the hell not”.  After all, Kickstarter lowers publication risks; the project has already collected almost double its initial crowd-funding goal at time of writing.  Purely as a financial enterprise, it may already be a success.  Jacobin’s outside-the-box undertaking raises an interesting question: while board gaming has grown beyond a geek pastime into a booming industry, does it have the potential to be an effective tool for political education?  Before answering this, a brief review of the use of ideology in tabletop board gaming may be useful.

Perhaps the oldest example of a board game with political motives was none other than Monopoly.  Elizabeth Magie’s earnest work in creating a game that criticized property ownership was in essence stolen, first by Charles Darrow, then Parker Brothers and eventually Hasbro, to become both a worldwide symbol of capitalism and a multibillion dollar product.  The irony is tremendous.

Class Struggle was a Marxist board game published in 1978.  (The designer of Class Struggle also once produced a set of Marxist rules for basketball.)  Players of Class Struggle, like Class War, represent classes; they roll and move around a board Monopoly-style and the Chance cards give assets and penalties for the status of the class in society.  Class Struggle cannot be described as a famous game; even within the environment of the tabletop gaming hobby, its gameplay is not particularly distinct or interesting, but it communicated its message to people who played it. 

Beyond explicit Marxism, there are interesting games with ideological elements; notable examples include This Guilty Land from Amabel Holland,  Freedom: the Underground Railroad by Brian Mayer, Twilight Struggle by Ananda Gupta and Jason Matthews and Archipelago by Christophe Boellinger.  Perhaps the most politically opinionated of game designers, however, is Phil Eklund.  His games cover a wide range of historical and scientific topics, with considerable research and heavy footnoting in the rulebooks.  Greenland is about anthropology.  Pax Emancipation covers liberty.  Pax Renaissance credits European bankers with saving civilization.  Eklund is at best a libertarian, and at worst has been thoroughly cancelled, most recently as a COVID skeptic.

A wider range of tabletop games include political assumptions in their rules that are necessary for the games to make sense, but are never named or discussed.  For example, wargames are still a niche sub-hobby with a huge history that is beyond the scope of this article.  However, it can be noted that as simulations of historical combat, virtually all wargames allow players to take either side of a battle, the fascists or the communists as well as the democrats and the liberals; but almost never the pacifists.  

There are numerous economic simulations in board games as well.  An interesting example is 1830: Railways and Robber Barons which inspired a wide class of designs referred to as the 18xx games.  Players of an 18xx game buy stock in, and collect dividends from, rail companies, and play to maximize individual profit and share value.  While embezzlement is forbidden, a common tactic is for a controlling shareholder to empty a company’s treasury by buying trains and building track, sell the trains to one of their other companies for a pittance, and dump the stock so that an inattentive minority stockholder is the new owner that has to deal with the mess.  The workers hammering in the spikes are never mentioned.

Certainly if the aim of Jacobin’s Class War game is to put the ideas of socialism in the minds of players, there is some precedent.  Can it work?  Let’s think about these players as consumers in the tabletop game market for a moment.  Whether they want to socialize, exercise their minds or work off aggression in a friendly competition, gamers like and support games because they find them fun.  The implied ideology of a game may or may not make it fun. Even Phil Eklund has made fun games, if you can hold your nose and play them at face value.  Class Struggle doesn’t seem to have been fun, and in its obscurity it didn’t communicate its ideas to many players.  Class War might be fun, there’s not enough public information to tell yet. Whether it succeeds as an entertaining game is what will ultimately determine its success; the more people enjoy it as a game, the more its message will be at least heard.  

As for games about real estate sharks and railway robber barons, the lesson that should be taken from them is that capitalism, the system that holds us all back, is so easily made into a winnable game.

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