Why Hubris is a Great Board Game Theme

When I wrote my article about theme a few months ago I made a quick remark about eurogames, asking, “I mean, from a literary-thematic point of view, what’s the typical eurogame about? What kind of ideas does it play with? That efficiency wins?”

This warrants more examination. I meant it as a bit of a joke, of course, but not entirely as a criticism. I have nothing against milquetoast euros with effectively no theme. I mean, many of them could easily be purely abstract but there’s a long tradition of barely-there theming in eurogames; at this point I find it sort of quaint. What has me thinking is what we can do with this as a starting point.

“Efficiency good” is an obvious destination once you conceive of the idea of a competitive game where the players have agency. If your goal is to win and there are cause-and-effect paths that navigate towards that goal, whoever manages that trek best wins the game. Luck can spoil that clean narrative, of course, and the more influence luck has over who wins the more the themes shift away from efficiency and more towards chaos.

A brief tangent: most games in our hobby sit somewhere on that spectrum, which is why people who complain about luck influencing their “skill-based” game that clearly has random elements, as if all games fit into the binary categories of either “skill-based” or “luck-based”, instead of mostly falling in the rich tapestry between those two extremes, are silly.

But it’s tautological that if the goal is to win, the things that make you win best are rewarded. The complicated bit is that life is far less straightforward than that. If you’re going to make a sandwich for lunch you’re probably not aiming, with intense concentration, to make the best possible sandwich you can as quickly as possible, as if in a race. You’re just making a sandwich. Being a good friend isn’t a straightforward process of identifying the actions that result in the most friendship points. It’s complex and messy because people are complex and messy.

Recognizing that much of life is messy, games tend to either abstract down to something so sanitized as to be unrecognizable as something commenting on life at all, or they deal with rigid systems. This is why so many games are about running a business enterprise, country, or military. We can conceptualize the single minded-pursuit of profit or power, and such single-mindedness makes it easy to crystallize winning into simply collecting victory points.

Is this the only thing board games are good at? Other game forms (digital or RPG) probably have the advantage with more complex, dare I say artistic, themes. But I do think there’s room for board games to explore those spaces. That’s for another article.

Recognizing that board games do “economizing within rigid systems” well, what are the thematic implications? I think it’s plainly obvious that rigid systems of human behavior are messy at best because people can’t fill the role of machines. I mean, years ago I studied ethics. We’ve been trying to figure out the fundamentals of “how should I live?” for millennia. I’m a Christian. When Jesus says that all of the law depends on two commandments: “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…[and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself”* that’s both extremely simple and endlessly complex.

So when people act with rigid structures of decision-making it reveals something about the system they have chosen to act within and something about themselves as they’ve chosen to behave in this manner. Both can be explored through board games.

Hubris, therefore, is a natural theme in board gaming. If you’re going to be playing an agent that has chosen to, for instance, pursue military victory at all costs, then the moral compromise that comes with such a dogged pursuit is easy to express within the game. I love how large strategic wargames naturally contain this sort of critique. Because the scale of the game necessitates great physical abstraction of people and geography, you naturally take the perspective of one who has (or most constantly resist the temptation to) dehumanize those caught in the conflict. Instead of people you see tokens and blocks. Instead of cities full of life, dots on a map. Archipelago reduces the native population of the islands you’re invading to potential labor and potential resistance. You take on a villainous perspective and do villainous things.

Insofar as you have agency in a game, you have power. Games are great at simulating the power-hungry. I know a lot of people don’t like it, but playing as the villain seems like such a natural fit for the medium.

System critique also works well. I think economic games should explore rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and other forms of state/business collusion much more than they do. What about games that explore various systems of government or bureaucracy? Die Macher is wonderful but I don’t see much fruit from that seed planted back in ‘86.**

I’m not saying all games need to take on these serious themes, but I do want to try to spark some imagination for what could be done. Sometimes we get too focused on what feels normal that we lose a bit of rebelliousness. Take the civilization sub-genre for example. How do you win at civilization? I mean in real life. If you had game-like god powers over a country or culture what would you optimize towards? Now think about what your favorite civ game rewards with victory points. 

Survival is paramount in those games, of course, but does your personal moral code contain some lines that you think should never be crossed even for the sake of survival? Great buildings and structures are often rewarded by the game, but in real life many of those were built via slavery and/or violent pilfering of resources from the everyday people. I can imagine a civ game that critiques the traditional value assumptions of the genre. It would probably be extremely difficult to design, but we’ve already got Through the Ages. We don’t really need another.

I’d love to hear your favorite games that explore or illustrate these value/system complexities. Amabel Holland, of course, has done it quite a bit. John Company, Pax Pamir, and (I assume) the other Pax games are great examples. I’ve also heard interesting things about The Cost. What examples do you have?

*Matthew 22:37,39

**I know that there are probably games out there that fit all of the descriptions I’ve provided in this article. Please comment below with them!

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