Broken; Unbroken

I’ve got a copy of Unbroken and I’m not sure what to do about it. I received it from another game reviewer a while back. Only after getting it did I realize there’s not a whole lot of sense reviewing it because plenty of people who already pre-ordered it via its infamous kickstarter campaign don’t even have it yet. I do my best to only publish reviews of games that are actually available to purchase. Unbroken was a different matter entirely. Reviewing it felt like it would be an act of mockery against those who didn’t yet have their copies.

So I didn’t do anything at all. I sat on it. It was still not fair to those without their copy, but they didn’t know about it. Every once in a while I’d spot it in my shelves and feel a pang of guilt. 

One of the hardest parts of reviewing board games is knowing that behind each game there is at least one person who really, truly cares about it. It’s still a small hobby, and most of the games that reach the market have that indie-feeling, where you can tell someone was trying to actually make something of quality. I ignore the obviously craven cash-grabs as best I can; they tend to be most frequent in the party game and giant minis-fest spheres, so I don’t miss out on much.

But there’s no pleasure in writing a review you know will disappoint a creator who poured hours and hours of their lives into their creation. I guess if the game is truly wretched it could be fun, but most of the time I’m simply disappointed in a bad or mediocre game. That’s not to say Unbroken is bad, but that it was subject to an overwhelming amount of attention far beyond its aims. It’s a humble game thrust into the spotlight. 

It was notable at the time for being one of those rare games explicitly designed for solo play. A good amount of attention was paid to the production design, which is lavish without becoming cumbersome. It’s surprisingly light, the sort of game you fiddle around with, poking and prodding, just seeing what happens when you turn this dial or pull that lever. You should not go into Unbroken expecting much calculation. 

It’s actually a push-your-luck game, reminding me of something like Can’t Stop more than anything. You’ve got a few different resources you’re tracking, and your primary method of gaining resources is through encounter cards. Each time you go through an encounter you’ll draw two cards, picking one of them. If you don’t like either or don’t meet the prerequisites (most trade one resource for another), you can trade the time indicated on one of the cards for effort (the most common resource). Either way you’re losing time, and the clock always ticks down.

Unbroken is oppressive in its relentlessness, even as you mostly sit tight for the ride. There are three fundamental decisions in the game: 1. Do you pay to scout ahead and see what the next monster will be? 2. Do you work towards upgrading your weapon now or hang onto resources that might enable better encounter opportunities? 3. How far do you push each round, knowing that if you run completely out of time the monster will get an ambush effect against you in the fight?

Those decisions are interesting, but they’re also frequently subservient to the encounter cards. One game I starved to death very quickly after not receiving any opportunities to gather food. I could have saved effort to pay for that food, but I used it to try to find food and to scout ahead at the monster. Did I make a wrong decision somewhere? I don’t know. A look through the encounter deck indicates that there are plenty of opportunities to find food. I simply didn’t get those cards. Sometimes the best, most experienced survivalists don’t make it back.

As I failed to survive, repeatedly, in Unbroken, the relationship between its gameplay and the story of its publication was not lost on me. For those unaware, Unbroken was initially a self-published game. After some early success in its Kickstarter campaign, it attracted the notice of Golden Bell Studios, who entered into a publishing agreement with the designer Artem Safarov. Golden Bell’s MO was to find these kinds of small board game projects and take over the publishing and production part of it. In exchange they’d buy out the entire IP rights. (Note to game designers: NEVER sign over the rights to your game unconditionally).

Unfortunately Golden Bell is also, charitably, incompetent. Some have suggested “scammy”. The owner also really likes to threaten people with lawsuits and doesn’t seem to think that’s a particularly serious thing to do. With Unbroken, they couldn’t meet the shipping prices they promised and attempted to (mis)use media mail to make it work. As a result, people were being charged with additional shipping fees upon receipt, which didn’t make them happy. After some nasty emails from backers, Golden Bell doubled down on the nastiness with their own brand of angry customer support and perhaps the most infamous board game Kickstarter campaign was born. People who paid additional shipping fees were slowly able to get their game, but many still do not have it and never expect to receive it.

Throughout, the difference between Golden Bell’s communications and Safarov’s was stark. By all accounts Artem is a decent person who simply wanted to design and sell a game. He’s still out there doing his best to try to get copies to backers.

It’s easy to despair. Rational, perhaps. I succumb to it far too easily. The rhythms of Unbroken feel so familiar; that arbitrary beatdown mirroring the patterns of my broken mind. As I reflected on Easter this past weekend I dwelled on the despair, too weak to face the hope. But hope is critical, and brave. The idea of overcoming death, rendering it null, is so overwhelming, so big, that I don’t know what to do with it. 

That’s a lie. I know what to do with it only in the abstract. It’s like when you read a paragraph while your mind wanders, and can’t recall a single thing about it when you reach the end. You know you read the words but they lost all substance. So you read it again, and a third time if needed, to reacquire comprehension.

These days, as hopelessness surrounds us, as disease and death confront us more readily than before, I feel the temptation to retreat. It’s easier to hide away in nothingness than take action. I’m often deluded into thinking that I need to do great, bold, brave things to escape this cage of my own creation. I’m slowly coming to realize that some of the greatest, boldest, bravest things are the everyday acts of kindness and humanity that, added together, create families and communities and love. By living a life of dedication to the small truths, the small loves, we nurture something greater than we could ever comprehend. 

Perhaps the way to comprehend the immensity of resurrection is to do it piece by piece.

If you’re one of those people who backed Unbroken and haven’t yet received your copy, and if you’re going to be at PAX East this weekend, send me a message. I’ve got your copy.

I had the idea that the world’s so full of pain
it must sometimes make a kind of singing.
And that the sequence helps, as much as order helps—
First an ego, and then pain, and then the singing.

-Faint Music by Robert Hass

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

-Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

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