Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Review of "Class War: The Jacobin board game"

The Continuation of Politics by Other Means

(Originally published at Tempest)

“Why,” you may be wondering, “is a socialist magazine doing a review of a board game?” Perhaps it is for the same reason that a socialist magazine would create and merchandise a board game. Announced on social media by Jacobin magazine in November 2021 as a crowd-funded Kickstarter project, Class War: The Jacobin Board Game was officially released for individual and retail distribution in May 2022.

Class War not only boasts the Jacobin imprimatur, but its design team comprises some of the primary names behind the magazine itself, including Jacobin editor Bhaskar Sunkara,. As stated in relevant materials and publicity, Jacobin views the game as both an entertainment and a “pedagogical” medium. “The gameplay is so addictive,” Jacobin asserts, “that even your libertarian uncle won’t be able to resist the world-historic struggle unfolding in the deck of cards before him.” At the same time, unwitting players “just might see, for the very first time, what a socialist perspective on our society’s class antagonisms really looks like.” 

Moreover, the act of buying and playing the game is intended to “support Jacobin’s important socialist journalism and analysis,” an effort aided by the penultimate page of the included Rule Book, which contains more information “About Jacobin” and on “Further Reading” (comprising a short list of mainly Jacobin-published texts such as The ABCs of Capitalism, The ABCs of Socialism, and The Socialist Manifesto).

Given the game’s explicitly dual character—as play and as propaganda—this review will examine Class War in detail on both counts, perhaps leaning in a bit harder on the political analysis. As it turns out, both the strengths and weaknesses of Class War as play and propaganda are immanently related to the strengths and weaknesses of Jacobin’s ideological approach to questions of socialist theory and strategy, reform and revolution, state power, and workers’ power.

The game mechanics and rules of Class War are relatively straight forward and make for a gradual learning curve, with a relatively moderate complexity level (closer to Exploding Kittens than Magic: The Gathering). As the game box states, 

“In Class War, you are a collective entity: a social class—either the Capitalists or the Workers. You’ll fight for social dominance in an unstable constitutional democracy… Classes will use money generated by workplaces to build their social power in society, using cards drawn from their deck. Then they will confront their opponent with a dice roll—in the economy, to win a greater slice of the economic pie, or in the state, to build political power. Ultimately, both classes aim to make their demands into law, permanently changing the rules of the game in their favor.”

I was initially very excited when the Kickstarter project for this game was announced. As a game enthusiast and socialist, I have long thought about how great it would be to have a game that coherently and effectively combined enthralling gameplay with the satisfaction of a simulated conquest of workers’ power over the forces of capitalist exploitation and oppression. Gaming, after all, is a medium that lends itself by design to the freest flight of imagination—to either escape from the misery of the real world in an excursion to another time, place, and even personality, or to embrace the hopes, dreams, and struggles of the real world in a fanciful glimpse of what it might entail to entirely change present society in the construction of a brighter future.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Class War sadly falls short of such lofty imaginings and even its own potential. However, let us start with what is good about the game, and why I would nonetheless recommend it for play with friends and comrades.