Victorian Game Night

This post was first published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online. I am very grateful to the Editors for permission to re-publish it here.


Martin Wallace’s board game Brass. Image courtesy of author.

If I take out a loan now, I’ll have enough money to build a coal mine.  The coal I produce will enable me to build rail to my cotton mill and eventually sell the cotton I produce to the distant market.  Or I can build a foundry, use the iron I produce to build another cotton mill, and then produce and sell cotton through other people’s ports, capitalizing on their infrastructure.

It’s Friday night and I’m in my living room playing Martin Wallace’s game Brass, an industrial revolution-themed board game in which players develop industry in Northern England during a canal era and then a railway era.  In the game, players own coal mines, cotton mills, foundries, ports, and shipyards; and they build canals and railways: truly captains of all industries.  The purpose is to build the most productive network, to earn money and points for every building and shipment, and there are no bonus points for efficiency.  Although the game begins in the eighteenth century, by its conclusion in the Victorian era Britain from Macclesfield to Barrow-in-Furness is a wasteland of mines and rails and buildings.

Brass is an economic game, and it’s no Monopoly.  It is one of thousands of such high-strategy board games circulating today in the back rooms of game shops and living rooms of enthusiasts, enjoyed by those who have long since graduated from the likes of Sorry or Risk.  These players prefer physical pieces and human interaction to the relatively virtual and detached computer and video game world.  Nor is Brass the only Victorian-flavored board game: there are games based on Victorian literary characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and games based on notorious personages and events, like Jack the Ripper and colonialism (the most amusing title in this last category is Rampant Colonialism).  There is an entire sub-genre based on the development of the railway systems in Europe and the United States, several games of which incorporate historical events into the game play.  There are hundreds if not thousands of Victorian-themed games.

I contemplate this as I decide whether it’s worth trying to sell my cotton to the distant market (“distant” here means “East”: the distant market card features what appears to be a British chap in a top hat shaking hands with a man wearing a turban).  Why do games such as Brass adopt historical themes?  What do players get out of these themes—if anything at all?  It’s easy for me to see that this game designer knew a thing or two about the history and economics of the industrial revolution, though the game is not overly historical.  A casual inquiry among players, however, indicates that fewer than half of them really think about the theme of Brass or, for that matter, any of the games they play.  While theme may be an initial draw, the way a game works is ultimately the most important factor.  Competition is the focus; to win efficiently, players abstract the game to its bare mechanics.  For many players, Brass could be set anywhere.

Distant Market cards. Image courtesy of author.

Nevertheless, I hazard to suggest the game teaches something, however subtle the lesson and however unreceptive the audience.  This game, no matter how abstractly a gamer may look at it, is blatantly about setting up industrial trade routes.  People have been effaced from the game: goods simply appear, and each player represents more of an unregulated corporate conglomerate than any one person or company.  This is an apt mechanic for a game set during the explosion of the business corporation, and players might learn a bit about the depersonalization and mechanization underlying such financial ventures despite themselves.

The larger lesson might be about our own estrangement from history.  Let me explain, via a more extreme example.  Another, even more popular game, features as its theme plantation development and the circulation of goods in Puerto Rico during the sixteenth century.  The game, called Puerto Rico, works very well as a game, and hence its popularity.  It is also covertly about the triangle trade, and the surreptitious way it deals with this is troubling.  In the game, ships arrive with “colonists” on board.  These “colonists” are represented by dark brown discs, and they go to work on the plantation or in the businesses each player controls.  They are converted, during the next phase of the game, into goods: sugar, tobacco, corn, indigo, and coffee.  The goods are loaded onto the ships, the players collect points for the shipments, and the cycle repeats.

Although this game does not hide its theme, it uses the euphemistic name “colonists” in place of “slaves.”  Perhaps in part as a result of this displacement, players do not tend to over-analyze the fact that they are effectively playing at being slave owners.  This lack of reflection is disturbing.  If the themes of these games are so frequently dismissed or under-analyzed, what purpose do these themes then serve?  They seem to satisfy a mild interest, a kind of passive engagement with history.

“Colonists” working plantations in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy of author.

A culture can be understood, in part, through the games it plays.  The Victorians played games such as Beggar My Neighbor, Speculation, and Commerce—games that reflect an interest in the world of finance.  What do our loosely historical games say about us?  The complexity of the industrial revolution in England is flattened out in Brass—how could it not be?  It’s a game that takes an hour and a half to play on a board that can fit on my coffee table.  But maybe what we learn in place of a complete Victorian history is a story about our cultural values, mirrored in the game mechanics themselves.  These values appear to prioritize abstract mechanization over historical narrative, corporate conglomeration over individual worker, economic triumph over anything else.  Perhaps this is a bit unjust—after all, winning is the goal of most games.  But if you win by being the most ruthless captain of industry or slave owner, what do you take away from the game?

I overbuild someone else’s foundry in Manchester, which is this game’s way of messing with your opponent.  It also represents a corporate takeover and worker layoffs.  This will allow me to earn immediate points and money, to build a ship in Liverpool, and to win.

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~ by susanelizabethcook on April 21, 2013.

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