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: