In All Seriousness – board games with sensitive topics (Topic Discussion)

I know that many of us play board games to have fun. Whether we enjoy lighter or heavier games, it’s all about spending time, either alone or with friends or family, getting away from the day-to-day worries and immersing yourself in another world for an hour or two or three. Yet, there are games that are set against the background of a very serious topic. These games want us, the players, to engage with the topic in a safe environment. They will never be perfect representations of the reality they portray, but hopefully, they will make us want to engage with the topic further.

I think most people immediately think of war games, when they think of games with a serious topic. Of course, games about a war or other historical conflict fit the bill. However, I do not want to talk about these types of games in this article. I want to look at other serious games that take a topic, other than war, from the past or the present for their setting.

There are now quite a few games like this in our hobby, such as The Cost, Doubt is our Product or Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. I’m sure that you can come up with other examples too. None of these games are war games, at least not in the sense that they portray a historical conflict.

The Importance of Serious Games

So, let me come right out with it: I truly believe that serious games are valuable to our hobby. The messages these games try to share with us, the players, are important.

While many of us will agree that books and films about serious topics are a good way for us to grapple with often difficult issues, board games are often not seen to be capable of doing so. After all, like I said at the beginning, board games are about having fun and not having to deal with day-to-day worries. Board games are supposed to be a form of escapism.

Yet in my mind, board games are very similar to books or films. While some books allow you to escape, others challenge you to think about more serious issues. The same is true for films, so I don’t see why board games can’t do both too. In fact, I think board games are more immersive than books and films, because they are interactive. It’s very common in historical games that the players can rewrite the past and create a different outcome than is documented in literature. A serious game can force you, the player, to make tough decisions that actually feel hard when you make them. Ideally, players will come away wanting to learn more about the topic or at least the game will have made them more aware of it.

I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to play a game about the greed of large corporations that exploit their workers and knowingly expose them to deadly asbestos, Serious games can definitely trigger people and I understand that. But that doesn’t mean we should not have serious games. Let’s have fiction and non-fiction board games. Let’s give people a choice.

a player board in The Cost showing coffins for worker meeples
the player boards in The Cost depict coffins for your worker meeples

Serious Topics Treated Thoughtfully

Of course, games that deal with serious topics need to do it right. It is always going to be hard for any game to reproduce what actually went on in detail. Games are always going to be more abstract because otherwise, the rules would become too cumbersome. Yet, if a game does it well, it will be interesting and flow well, while also conveying an important message.

The Cost, for example, is a very competitive game with a lot of strategy. It also doesn’t mince its mechanisms, so to speak. If you want to win, you have to accept that your workers will die. You have to place your meeples on grave spaces to indicate this. You really feel ruthless as you reduce costs and increase profit. It’s intentionally not done subtly to remind you of your actions.

Doubt is our Product emulates the struggle between tobacco companies that sell their carcinogenic products to as many people as possible and the movement that tries to establish legislation and regulations so tobacco is sold with huge warning labels or banned outright. In the game, one of the two players represents the tobacco industry, which isn’t an easy part to take on. It definitely confronts both players with a serious topic and will hopefully give them a better understanding of what went on.

Thinking about death or even end-of-life is never easy. Yet, that’s exactly what Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr portrays. The game handles this topic very sensitively. While a lot of the players’ actions are about making their patient comfortable, they also try to find out more about the person they’re treating. The game is almost a celebration of this fictional character’s life.

Room for Both

As I say, there is, of course, room for all types of games: serious or otherwise. Yet, even though many of us will want to entertain ourselves when we play board games, at least most of the time, some of us will also want to challenge ourselves with serious topics, at least some of the time. I think that’s important and as a community, we should not shun these types of games. If done right, they will be educational or at least they will stimulate interest in important issues. Maybe these games will make us read books or watch films. Maybe these games will allow us to change what actually happened and show ourselves that there are other options. Whatever these games have to offer, I think we should allow space for them in our hobby.

What About You?

So now I’m wondering what you think of serious games. Do you think they have a place in the board game hobby? Have you ever tried to tackle a game with a serious topic? If so, what was it and how did it make you feel? Or do you never want to play a serious game? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. There is no right or wrong here. Every opinion counts.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Sonnengruß by Sascha Ende
Website: https://filmmusic.io/song/83-sonnengruss
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

Sensitive settings (Topic Discussion) – Tabletop Games Blog

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.

Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)
Music: Peace of Mind by Kevin MacLeod (https://filmmusic.io/song/4199-peace-of-mind)
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/