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.

Box and materials for Jacobin's "Class War" board game.In a game world saturated with contests of warring empires, monster-slaying, first-person-shooting, or otherwise depoliticized bluffing, guessing, resource management, or numbered card-collecting, a game that even hints in a subversive direction toward a rejection of the political and social status quo is a welcome contribution. A game that explicitly depicts the malevolence of the capitalist class and the desirable rebelliousness of the exploited working class is even more welcome. Insofar as some retail game outlets seem interested in actually stocking copies of Class War on their shelves, it would be wonderful to walk into one of those stores and see the brightly colored box, with the bright yellow letters screaming “Class War,” sitting next to a Monopoly or Settlers of Catan.

Wonderful, too, are features on Class War that have appeared in more mainstream gaming websites and forums, such as Tech Raptor, Wargamer, and Board Game Geek. “Naturally, Class War isn’t exactly subtle with the social commentary,” wrote one reviewer. “In perspective, [however], a crowdfunded card game about the challenges facing our current political and economic climate is not just to be expected, but encouraged.”

It can be taken as a positive sign of the times that a game produced by a socialist magazine could receive such favorable response. After all, since at least 2010, and holding steady or increasing through at least 2020, opinion polls have demonstrated the growing popularity of socialism among the U.S. population

In terms of the game itself, the materials are of professional quality, the Rule Book is simple and helpful, and the design and artwork are well done and charming. The game mechanics and rules are also relatively well developed and internally coherent, though with a bit more tweaking they could have provided for more strategic maneuvering and expansive playability (Class War is exclusively a two-player game). Finally, the game includes cards which either allude to or explicitly reference such figures as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and Frederick Engels, and such phenomena as workplace strikes, unionization attempts, and free health care, which certainly will make the game particularly endearing to those already familiar with such socialist canon (if unfortunately obscured to those who are not; more on this below).

In sum, if you are going to reach for a (two-player) game to play with a partner, it would be better and more enjoyable to grab Class War rather than, say, UNO, Scrabble, or some other title from Milton Bradley or Parker Brothers (now both owned by the mega-corporation Hasbro Gaming).

Class War, however, remains a game that is far too narrow and constrained in terms of both play and propaganda. Such narrowness and constraint are of a kind as that from which Jacobin and DSA also suffer in their political conceptions and strategic orientations in pursuit of socialism. The supremacy of an electoral, parliamentary approach to winning partial, pro-labor reforms through the apparatus of the existing capitalist state is given disproportionate priority over both the direct economic struggles of the working class over the production process itself as well as the broader struggles against axes of social oppression. This is to say nothing of the notion of developing class-consciousness or organizational preparedness for the revolutionary transformation of society and the overthrow of bourgeois state rule by organs of working-class democracy.

After all, the winner in Class War is that class which is first able to elect a politician to office and then maneuver legislatively to get two pro-labor (or pro-capitalist) reform bills enacted (i.e., pass a “full program” of “demands”). This seems a quite anticlimactic and unimaginative conclusion to a game titled Class War in which workers and capitalists will ostensibly “battle for the future of society.” 

While it is the case that the Working Class can engage in strikes targeting the Capitalist Class’s profit-generating workplaces, this mechanism of the game is of ancillary importance to the main objective. By going on strike, the Working Class can at best win an incremental increase in the ‘wages’ that they draw from the Bank each turn, but this is only useful insofar as it affords the Working Class more wealth to fund their election and legislative reform campaigns. 

Thus, the asymmetry of this “asymmetric strategy game” is not as asymmetrical as one might think. The Working Class and the Capitalist Class utilize a different set of cards with different abilities, but both classes are ultimately operating on the same terrain of battle, under the same win conditions, and confined to the same strategic approach to reaching the win condition. The Working Class has no distinct way to win the game, for example, by exercising its collective power at the point of economic production. The unique power of the working class under capitalism, however, consists precisely in its capacity to disrupt and ultimately seize control of the economic resources of society, for it is upon the labors of the working class that capitalist society itself ultimately depends. This fact alone is the source of the working class’s asymmetrical power in the real ‘class war’ for socialism. The game Class War, however, disarms the working class of this asymmetric advantage and instead confines the Working Class to a quite symmetric struggle over parliamentary influence—a struggle which again, in the real “class war,” is on terms highly advantageous to the capitalist class.

Getting more socialist candidates elected to office in the hopes of one day mustering enough Congressional votes to enact social democratic reforms may constitute the strategic priorities of DSA in the real “class war,” but merely replicating a caricature of this approach in the form of a board game makes for neither a particularly useful teaching tool nor an engrossing or imaginative act of play. Why not make a socialist board game in which a player might be able to vicariously engage in more inspiring acts of working-class struggle, such as seizing the means of production, overthrowing the inherently undemocratic capitalist state, experimenting with new forms of workers’ power, or even engaging in any form of revolution (the latter of which is completely absent from Jacobin’s Class War)? Instead of “Class War” in the Marxist sense, in which the future of human society and the emancipation of labor hangs in the balance, Jacobin’s game is more “Class Maneuvering on More or Less Favorable Terms” (an admittedly impossible game title), in which the partial modification of present-day capitalist relations hangs in the balance.

The political narrowness and constraint of Class War can be found in myriad other disappointing features of the game. For one, the content of the cards, which constitute the primary material engine of gameplay, treat with the political questions they raise in an excessively esoteric, cynical, and obscurantist way (each card contains an illustration and “flavor text” by way of a caption). It is as if the cards were designed as a series of inside (curmudgeonly) jokes, privy only to “those who get it.” 

For instance, the “General Strike” card reads: “What if millions of people didn’t show up for work one day, and it’s all because you tweeted #GeneralStrikeNow?” The “Workers’ Party” card reads: “The revolution starts with getting Jesse Ventura on the ballot in Nebraska.” The “Rosa Luxembear” (yes, you read that correctly) card reads: “Don’t get the reference? I’m like Tupac for Jacobin readers.” I consider myself fairly well-versed in Marxism, hip-hop, and Jacobin, and even I don’t get the reference.

Sampling of "Class War" cards, including Rosa Luxembear, Workers' Party, General Strike, Barx and Eagels, Barynard Rustin, and Birdie Feathers.The foregoing has the effect of rendering Class War far less useful pedagogically than it could have been. Most strikingly, there is no card nor even mention, let alone description, of “socialism” in this game (with the exception of two cards out of a total of eighty-eight that mention the word “communist” in a jocular line of otherwise unrelated flavor text). The “Barnyard Rustin,” “Barx and Eagels,” and “Rosa Luxembear” cards are cute, but pedagogically vapid. Neither are there any cards or game mechanics that explicitly involve questions of social oppression, such as race, gender, immigration, nor that of imperialism or national chauvinism—questions that are in fact vital and central elements in the capacity of the working class to successfully oppose the attacks of the ruling class in the real class war. Indeed, the only approximation of discussion of racism or sexism in the game is when it is employed sardonically in the flavor text. The “Student Activist” card reads: “I spent freshman year ordering b├ính mi from the cafeteria. Then I spent my sophomore year protesting it for being racist.” The “Birdie Feathers” card (i.e., Bernie Sanders) reads: “Okay, now that we got the important stuff out of the way, I guess you kids will want to talk about ‘cultural appropriation’ now, huh?” The Capitalist Class’s “TV Network” card reads, “Perfect hair, white teeth, and a smooth baritone voice to remind you that Birdie Feathers is a sexist.”

It is reasonable to assume that such “oversights” are connected to certain political trends within Jacobin and DSA that promote an
economistic” approach to socialist organizing, premised upon “universalist” demands around “bread and butter issues.” As Kim Moody explains in Breaking the Impasse, such an economistic approach involves a tendency to “demote, though not necessarily deny, race and racism as a factor in socialist analysis of American society, its working class, and today’s politics,” and can be found in “the calculations of those hoping to revive or create anew a race-blind social democratic politics.” Thus, all the “Demands” cards, two of which the Working Class needs to enact legislatively to win Class War, are of a purely economistic nature (e.g., “Jobs Program,” “Wealth Tax,” “Free Health Care”). There are no “Defund the Police” or “Free Abortion on Demand” cards in this game.

Perhaps one may retort that it is unreasonable, misplaced, or even sectarian to expect a board game intended for a mass audience to contain explicit Marxist propaganda or game mechanics informed by a revolutionary socialist class analysis. To that I would direct attention to other (rare) board games that have enjoyed both high sales and consistently high ratings among gamers, while achieving a relatively higher degree of political pedagogy and gameplay than Class War. Preeminent among this cohort is the classic game, Class Struggle, designed by Marxist scholar Bertell Ollman and published in 1978. Though now out of production, Class Struggle sold roughly 230,000 copies during its lifetime, and its enduring popularity has been reflected more recently in articles in the Guardian and Mental Floss, praising it as “America’s Most Popular Marxist Board Game,” and claiming that, while “[t]errible educational board games are a blight,” Class Struggle goes “the extra mile, and it makes all the difference.”

A quick review of a few outstanding elements of Class Struggle is enough to impart the length to which Jacobin’s game falls short of the potential. At the outset, the Rule Book explicitly states that “THE OBJECT OF THE GAME IS TO WIN THE REVOLUTION.” To this end, two to six players struggle to determine whether the game will conclude in “Socialism (workers win)” or “Barbarism (capitalists win).” While each player plays as a distinct socioeconomic class, including Workers, Capitalists, Farmers, Small Businesses, Professionals, and Students, the rules specify that “Only the Workers and Capitalists can win the game. The other classes participate in winning or losing through alliances with one or another Major Class. While Workers and Capitalists struggle to win, the Minor Classes struggle to be on the winning side.” 

"Class Struggle" board game box.Another element of gameplay in Class Struggle, “Confrontations,” representing a variety of potential conflicts between the contending Classes of the game, includes the following caveat in the Rule Book with regard to electoral confrontations: “Elections are true Confrontations only if the Workers, or one of its allies, has already landed on Square 16 or 55 indicating that a Working Class political party has been formed. Otherwise, the Capitalists automatically win this confrontation. IN AN ELECTION BETWEEN THE CAPITALIST PARTIES OF TWEEDLE DEEmocrats AND TWEEDLE DUMlicans, THE WORKERS CAN ONLY LOSE.”

Landing on certain spaces on the game board, or drawing certain “Chance Cards,” can have either a positive or negative effect, depending on which class is affected. The Workers advance if they land on “Male and female workers unite to fight sexism” or “Black and White workers unite to fight racism;” or the Workers may get to facetiously choose the effect if they draw the “Chance Card” that reads: “You have just been laid off from work. If you blame yourself, or foreign competition, or the Blacks, or Jews, move two spaces back. If you blame the Capitalists, move two spaces ahead.”

A much more recent board game, Hegemony, which debuted on Kickstarter shortly after Jacobin’s Class War, combines intricate gameplay with a massive amount of pedagogical material. Hegemony is rated exceptionally high on gamer forums and enjoys robust sales. In Hegemony, players take on the role of either the Working Class, the Middle Class, the Capitalist Class, or the State, amidst a “Nation in disarray,” in which each class struggles for hegemony over society. To be sure, the fact that Hegemony, unlike Class War, purports to be neutral in favoring one class or ideology over another means that it is more likely to be palatable to a mass consumer audience. On the other hand, each copy of Hegemony comes with a forty-page educational booklet that not only discusses the concepts and institutions raised in the game (e.g., Socialism, Neoliberalism, the IMF, Marxism, Keynesianism), but also explicitly references and explains the theory of hegemony developed by Italian communist, Antonio Gramsci, from which the game draws its title.

One final board game that is worth mentioning by way of comparison is Bloc by Bloc: The Insurrection Game. Published in 2016, Bloc by Bloc is another explicitly political game that enjoys high ratings on gamer forums, and has the additional benefit of being “semi-cooperative” in its gameplay (a feature I always appreciate in a medium near-uniformly dominated by exclusively competitive modes). Although the game is conspicuously influenced by anarchist and insurrectionist politics, and utterly devoid of the dynamics of class struggle per se, it nonetheless transparently draws from inspiring contemporary global struggles such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Matter uprisings. As a revolutionary socialist, it is simply hard not to get behind a game in which, as a rule, “The police and the State are the common enemies of all [players].”   

Ultimately, Class War is an artifact of the present state of global capitalism and the present state of the U.S. socialist movement. To adapt Clausewitz’s famous maxim, Class War is the continuation of DSA’s brand of social-democratic politics by other means, with all the contradictions so entailed. Thus, Kim Moody’s apt critique of the dominant electoralist current within DSA applies in equal measure to an appraisal of Class War:

“The fact is, the best social legislation in the US, as limited as it has been, has followed the rhythm of mass social upheavals and movements far more closely than that of the ins and outs of the two major parties…. [W]orking-class power does not derive from holding office in the capitalist state even if that can enhance its ability to win things under some circumstances. Rather working-class influence within the capitalist state derives from its fundamental social and economic power. The point is to organize and activate that power at its sources.”

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