There’s a common adage that books tell us about the time they were written, and not about the era in history where the story takes place—the creative process, the issues brought up, the problems and solutions presented, the struggles faced by the characters, and many other facets of any given story are more indicative of the writer’s period in history than the story’s (this is especially interesting to keep in mind when reading historical fiction).
I think there’s a similar phenomenon that can be identified in board games. The anxieties of a particular age are often channeled into board games, possibly as a coping mechanism that help people actualize their fears of seemingly ethereal problems; they can deal with them on the tabletop and feel slightly more active in the management of the issues of their time (that’s my theory, anyway).
Yes, that’s a broad statement, and would need an economist, a game theorist, a literary critic, and a historian to back it up. But I’m going to throw out a few examples that I think highlight this tendency and hope that people will chime in with some ideas, both that support and refute my theory. I’m really looking forward to hearing what people think about this one.
(Note: I’m primarily drawing on economic examples here, simply for ease of writing. There are certainly political and cultural issues that could be included as well.)
Coolidge, Big Business, and the 20s
Let’s take a look at one of the most well-known games in American history: Monopoly. It’s the prototypical American capitalist game: amass as much money as possible, stay out of jail, take over utilities, and put your competitors out of business. It’s about as economically ruthless and cutthroat (at least in theme) as you can get.
Although Monopoly was based on a game that was created in the very early 20th century, the game as we know it arrived on the scene in the early 1930s, when the United States was coming out of Calvin Coolidge’s presidency. Coolidge, though generally unremarkable, was very conservative in his views on government and business. He was opposed to government regulation of the free market and tried to keep federal organizations out of it.
Antitrust prosecutions decreased significantly during the 20s, allowing companies to manipulate and control markets under Coolidge’s laissez-faire philosophy. Many people argue that these monopolies were instrumental in the ushering in of the Great Depression.
Unregulated big business, monopolies stifling competition, smaller companies going under, lack of prosecution . . . sound familiar?
Acquisition in the 50s and 60s
The post-World-War-II era was one of most—if not the most—economically successful eras in United States history. Productivity was up, the dollar was strong, and advances in technology were helping companies create more with less investment. Some remember these decades as the “Golden Age” of the American dream. Scarcity wasn’t an issue, and the business world was booming.
Companies were quickly expanding, and the 60s and 70s saw the creation (often through acquisition) of much larger corporations, sometimes driven by companies that had begun as very small operations. Entrepreneurship has long been associated with the American dream, and the idea of working hard to turn a small company into a large, successful one and reaping the monetary rewards of that evolution were strong in the 60s.
Acquire was released in 1962, and is now recognized as the first European-style board game, despite being designed by American Sid Sackson. In it, players race to turn their small hotel chains into megachains by investing in stock, founding new chains, and acquiring other chains through mergers.
It was the American Dream on a board. Start small, work hard, make good decisions, and you’ll get rich. Was it a reasonable goal in real life? Maybe, maybe not. Was it reasonable in Acquire? Absolutely. If you couldn’t do it with your own business, you could at least do it with one in the game.
2016: Building a Better Dystopia
Some games, instead of reflecting the time in which they were designed, seem to predict the events of the near future. Stonemaier’s Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia is one of those games.
Even though 2016 is only half over at the time of this writing, it’s clear that much of the Western world has decided that things need to change. The rise of Donald Trump in the United States and Britain’s decision to leave the European union both show that citizens are tired of both the status quo and the elite institutions that have been running the show for the past several decades. The masses feel like they’ve been exploited, and they’re not happy about it.
Regardless of how you feel about these political happenings, you can’t say we weren’t warned. In Euphoria, according to BoardGameGeek,
Your path to victory is paved with the sweat of your workers, the strength of your allegiances, and the tunnels you dig to infiltrate other areas of the world, but the destination is a land grab in the form of area control. You accomplish this by constructing markets that impose harsh restrictions of personal freedoms upon other players, changing the face of the game and opening new paths to victory.
Dice rolls in the game represent the intelligence or awareness of your workers. Roll high, and they’ll get a lot of work done . . . but they’ll also come closer to realizing that you’re exploiting them. Roll too high, and one of your workers will leave.
If that doesn’t sound like the combination of aggressive worker exploitation, the War on Terror, the deployment of universal government surveillance, and the large-scale backlash against these activities that we’re seeing today, I don’t know what does.
Obviously, how you interpret Euphoria and its relation to the post-9/11 world depends largely on your political views, but I think my interpretation is a sound one. We may not be living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia, but we’re certainly on our way.
A litany of examples
These three games—Monopoly, Acquire, and Euphoria—represent the times in which they were designed in some fascinating ways that can be used as lenses into the economic realities of the era. Of course, I’m sure there are many counter-examples to this view. Because any one person’s knowledge (especially mine) of the entire canon of board games is limited, there are sure to be other perspectives.
This entire exercise was a bit of a thought experiment on my part, and I wanted to post about it here to generate some discussion. I’d love to hear what you think.
What other games reflect the economic realities of their times? Which ones contradict those realities? Why do you think these games were designed the way they were? Share your thoughts in the comments below and we’ll talk about it.