Brian Train

Brian Train is a game designer from Victoria, British Columbia. He has been playing wargames since 1979 and designing them since 1991.

The term “newsgames” is a recent invention in game studies that refers to videogames that attempt to fulfil the basic objectives of journalism. However, analog games that perform the same function constitute a substantial body of work that not only predates videogames themselves, it continues today. Analog newsgames offer concerned and motivated individual citizens a platform to interpret the world around them, and to share that interpretation.

The word “newsgame” became much more widely used in the game studies community when Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer published Newsgames: Journalism at Play in 2011. In the book, Bogost described the basic objectives of journalism (to inform, educate, criticize and persuade) and how video games distributed through the Internet could improve the effectiveness of journalists in achieving those objectives, and possibly rescue their reputation and livelihood at the same time.

Ten years later Bogost wrote an opinion piece for Convergence, a journal dedicated to new media technologies, called “Curiosity journalism, or the first decades of newsgames”. In it, he concluded:

“Journalism games were a long shot, for reasons that had little to do with games and more to do with everything else happening in the media and tech industries…. Computers turned out to be the authoring and distribution system for 20th Century media, not hosts for procedural media like software and simulations. Those circumstances can partly explain the shift from games to gamification….”

I was not that surprised to read his post-mortem of the form, since neither the original book nor this “bookend” piece mentioned analog games at all, except for a discussion of crosswords and word puzzles appearing in newspapers. It is well known that this area of cultural studies, particularly in the United States, is almost completely devoted to computer and video games and is persistently ignorant both of its analog history and of the analog games that continue to be published alongside digital games.

The fact remains that the practice of producing analog or analog newsgames predates video games by a very long time and continues today. Many of them stand as more than just commemorative objects or ephemera; they are also fine examples of citizen-based social criticism and analytic journalism.

In this blog I will present examples of three general types of analog newsgame: the game that uses a “reskin” of a well-known popular game to make a point; the game that is an original design but nevertheless simple mechanics; and the historical board wargame, a procedurally heavy item informed by data and techniques of operational research.

Before the Internet: reskinning classic games for classic journalism

In Critical Play, Mary Flanagan writes on the practice of purposeful remixing or reskinning of classic board games by artists and designers for the purpose of parody, satire or to deliver a moral lesson somewhat altered from the original intent. The simplest form of analog newsgame is one that adopts the appearance and mechanism of a classic board game for familiarity with readers but replaces the original game’s contents with content on a contemporary social or political issue.

One of these classic board games is the “Goose Game” or Jeu de l’oie, a European children’s game. Traditionally, the game uses a spiral-shaped track of 63 spaces and players move forward and backward on it according to the throw of two dice, attempting to win by landing exactly on the final space. It has been used for imparting morality lessons like Snakes and Ladders once was in the English-speaking world, but its structure has been used for many other purposes.

The earliest example I have been able to find of an attempt to document and interpret a contemporary sociopolitical event in the form of a game is Le Jeu des François et des Espagnols pour la Paix (The Game of French vs. Spanish for Peace). The game board is a spiral with 26 spaces, each labelled with a date between 1635 and 1660 and detailing an event in the Franco-Spanish wars. The left side of each space details the French gains and the right side, those of the Spaniards. The final space celebrates the end of the war in 1660, the year this hand-coloured etching was published.

The game board for Le Jeu des François et des Espagnols pour la Paix (The Game of French vs. Spanish for Peace)

Jumping forward over two hundred years, an example of the Goose Game being used for satire is Le General Boulanger, a game published in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1889. It is about the career of General Ernest Boulanger, a reactionary politician who at the time was threatening to lead a right-wing coup d’etat and become dictator of France. This spiral-track “goose game” format, familiar to readers from their childhood as a vehicle of moral lessons, was subverted as the cellular structure of the game relayed a narrative shot through with sarcastic comments on the stages of the General’s military and political career.

An example of war propaganda from early 1945 is Giochi delle 3 Ocche (Game of the Three Geese), produced in the short-lived Italian Social Republic. Its spiral track is divided into 50 spaces with Fascist and racist messages: space 14 features a caricature of an apelike Black American soldier; space 35 shows American “Liberator” bombers destroying schools while space 37 shows V-1 flying bombs striking London; and space 50, the goal, promises the redeemed honour of Italy through secret weapons and the New Order.

Giochi delle 3 Ocche (Game of the Three Geese)

In the United States, the structure and rules of Monopoly would often be used for these kinds of games because again, the mechanics and conventions would already be well-known to readers from their childhoods.

An attempt to explore the issue of race and inequality using the structure of Monopoly was Blacks and Whites, which was included in the March 1970 issue of Psychology Today magazine. It used the general concepts of Monopoly (roll and move, acquiring property while trying to bankrupt the other players) and was conceived as a painless way for middle-class whites to experience — and understand — the frustrations of blacks. Examples of game rules that reinforced this included: a White player started with 100 times more money than a Black player and was able to buy property anywhere, while Black players were always the minority of the players in a group, started with less money and collected less on each trip around the board, were unable to buy certain properties and had to draw from a separate Chance deck. In 2020 a graphic, mechanical and content update underlining how little has changed was made for a 50th anniversary edition; it handily achieved sufficient funding on Kickstarter to be published.

The game board for Blacks and Whites

In August 1971 National Lampoon magazine printed Welfare Monopoly – a playable parody in which one player was a slumlord and the rest of the players were renters on public assistance. There were seven different ways to end up in jail, and a player unable to pay rent could be killed by the property owner. The winner was the last one left alive.

All of the examples given here predate the Internet, and in fact predate video games themselves. Most of them belong to the general roll-and-move genre, as something that would be mechanically familiar to both children and adults. Again, they are not innovative game designs themselves, nor (to be honest) even particularly interesting games, but they are purposeful in their application under the objectives of journalism to variously inform, educate and criticize… though we can see easily that they were in turn reflections of the concerns of the times in which they were produced.

The politically performing object: original game designs as propaganda and polemic

There is also a more modern tradition of socially or politically critical newsgames on contemporary topics that do not imitate the structure of classic board games but are relatively simple mechanically, in order to present the players with the basic features and dilemmas of the situation quickly.

Two early examples that dealt with the unrest on American college campuses in the 1960s were:

  • UP AGAINST THE WALL, MOTHERFUCKER which appeared in the Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia University’s student paper in 1969. The game board, which is a number of trails winding around the buildings of the Columbia campus, looks like a standard roll-and-move game. Instead, players allocate resources to these trails, which are actually scales of the attitudes of different groups contending within the university power structure – Conservative Students, Alumni, Tenured Faculty, and so on – and rolling dice in hope of changing these attitudes. The game was designed by James Dunnigan, who went on to create Simulations Publications Incorporated or SPI, a company that produced hundreds of historical wargames between 1970 and 1982. More about him later!
The supplement in the paper

National Lampoon also published “Right On! The Campus War Game” in its October 1971 issue; this was an article presented as the partial rules, pieces and map for a simulation of conflict on an American college campus between red Radicals, blue Establishment, and yellow Common Pool pieces like journalists, Concerned Mothers, and the campus chaplain. Though the game was unplayable, it described several mechanics recognizable in early wargames such as a combat rating on counters, terrain affecting movement, and so on.

Other examples of critical games that appeared in periodicals in the 1980s include

  •  Strike! in Games and Puzzles magazine in 1981. This game was a simple simulation of the British car industry of the 1970s and a reflection of the labour unrest of the period. The game asks players to do the impossible: the game is played in teams of two, one representing the managing director of a car manufacturer, and the other the union leader of its workforce.
  • Tchernobyl sur Loire in the French magazine Jeux & Stratégie in 1990: in it, two to four players representing industrial conglomerates tried to get as rich as possible by developing polluting industries and manipulating ecologists to interfere with other conglomerates’ development.
  • The monthly Italian magazine Il Bel Paese existed only from 1985 to 1986 but each month saw the publication of one or more simple games in its pages inspired by news and current events. Scandals were plentiful at that time, so the designers had plenty to work with as they made fun of the embarrassments of government ministers, politicians and figures like Silvio Berlusconi, then a major media and broadcasting figure. The games had simple short typeset rules, many mechanics were based on card play, and a very simple graphic style prevailed.

Bogost’s remark in 2020 about computers as authoring and distribution systems for analog games was a belated recognition of a process that had started in the 1990s.The mass acquisition of personal computers and the advent of the Internet resulted in an upsurge in the number of self-published games, due to two things: the development of cheap, easy to use desktop publishing software and the Portable Document Format to produce them; and the use of the Internet to store and distribute them – that is, the Print and Play format. It was now possible for not just large publishers but also small companies and individual people to design, develop and distribute their own games over the Internet for free.

Terrorbull Games, an English firm that published the controversial board game War on Terror in 2006, also produced a number of free print and play games on its website:

  • Operation BP: Bullshit Plug (2010) on managing public relations during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster;
  • In It Together (2015), a simple lesson on perpetuated inequality;
  • Our Sonovabitch (2011) on arms sales to countries in the Arab Spring;
  • Mosqopoly (2010) about the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy in Manhattan;
  • Metakettle (2011), a game for protesters to play while being confined by the police; and
  • Deepsea Desperation (2010) – designed for Greenpeace, a game in which one player creates marine reserve zones on a grid representing the ocean while the other player drills for oil, extracting profits.
Rules for In It Together

Each game was only one or two pages long, with short rules and simple principles – for example, Operation BP: Bullshit Plug used the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a resolution mechanic for players matching cards and trying to maximize their scores.

In 2011 Simon Ferrari, one of the co-authors of Newsgames, wrote a piece for mediashift.org about paper prototyping as a method of developing a videogame. In it, he did a quick review and analysis of several of these Terrorbull print-and-play games and singled them out for praise, saying that they “far exceed the quality and complexity of many editorial video games (and all of the prototype-quality videogames seen on Flash game portals)” and “it shows that the combination of paper prototyping and print-and-play have the potential to make valuable contributions to ludic commentary on both breaking and ongoing issues.”

Other illustrations of this grudging home truth can be found on Boardgamegeek.com, a database and information resource on boardgames that has entries for over 84,000 items. A quick search reveals a number of free “web published” games with satirical or critical political content. Examples include:

  • Final Decrees (1999);
  • Run Hippy Run! (2000);
  • Bastards Inc. (2004);
  • Free at Last (2006);
  • #Occupy Boardwalk (2011);
  • Austerity (2015);
  • Construction Boom (2020)

These games are normally small in size, short in length, and are presented with simple graphics or use only a small number of components so that assembling and playing them is not too onerous or complex.

Historical board wargames

The most complex strain of analog newsgame is the serious board wargame devoted to the study of current or hypothetical events. Where previous examples could be compared to shorter snappier editorials, opinion pieces or satires these are analogous to the analytical, data-heavy “special feature” magazine or journal piece. They can feature considerable depth of analysis as the result of intensive research, delivered to players through relatively complex mechanics that have been thoroughly developed and tested.

In 1969 James Dunnigan founded Simulations Publications Incorporated (SPI) while he was still an undergraduate at Columbia University. This was one of the first publishing companies devoted to the hobby, and it would publish more than 300 wargame designs before it folded in 1982. About a hundred of them were his. And about a quarter of the company’s total output was published in Strategy and Tactics, a bimonthly magazine that was the first periodical devoted to wargaming that contained playable games. While the original company is no more, the magazine is still active and has published more than 350 issues as of this writing.

Each issue of Strategy and Tactics contained a playable game. Besides the game, the magazine would also contain articles totaling 5,000 to 10,000 words or more of analysis and context – the history, course and broader aspects of the conflict portrayed in the game. Normally this was also written by the game’s designer, so the writer’s research would be presented twice: once as a standard written feature in a magazine, and again where the research was quantified and joined with a set of game mechanics to make a game that readers could play and explore the topic for themselves. These are clear examples of amateur analytic journalism and are a version of the “platform” genre of newsgame described in Bogost’s book, where a game is supported by extensive background material.

Dunnigan was also fascinated by the ability of board games to explore contemporary and hypothetical conflicts. This wasn’t anything that the American professional military wasn’t already doing, with good reason. So why shouldn’t civilians also explore these problem spaces for themselves, with the benefit of some research and tested game mechanics?

Examples of these contemporary-focus games included

  • Year of the Rat, a game on the Easter Offensive in Vietnam in 1972 published less than six months after the actual event.
  • The “hypothetical 1970s” scenario for Sinai, a game on past Arab-Israeli Wars, was being tested when the actual 1973 Arab-Israeli War started.
  • Arabian Nightmare: Kuwait War: probably the first analog wargame to be designed, tested and developed mainly over the Internet. Within days of the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, Dunnigan and his co-designer Austin Bay began to communicate over the GEnie online service with developers, playtesters and graphic artists to create a game that reached subscribers in January 1991, just as the real Operation Desert Storm got underway.

Dunnigan also published games on hypothetical topics in Strategy and Tactics. Many dealt with large-scale regional wars (Oil War, Revolt in the East, South Africa, The China War, Rapid Deployment Force, Nordkapp, Central Command, Target Libya) or the World War III in Europe that never happened (Berlin ‘85, Fifth Corps, BAOR, Superpowers at War, North German Plain, Donau Front).

As noted before, personal computers and the Internet have made distribution of simpler analog newsgames possible through print-and-play. The same factors apply to quick production of analog analytical games on current and hypothetical topics. It has been possible for some time for a person so motivated to produce and distribute an analog newsgame on a particular topic far faster than the video newsgames that Bogost proposed in his book. Here are three examples, two from my own work.

  • Battle of Seattle: on the three days of popular demonstrations against the World Trade Organization conference in Seattle in late 1999. I produced this game within two weeks of the event; its mechanics reflected some of my thoughts at the time about violent civic confrontations and perceptions of how one side or the other could “win” the battle for image leverage and information dominance. It was a mostly serious game on an important episode of public protest, but I also gave it a satirical quality through the playful images I put on the counters and in some random events like “Paperwork”, where a Police unit is removed to spend the rest of the game filling out forms.
  • A Reign of Missiles: in response to the Gaza Missile Crisis, Paul Rohrbaugh produced this solitaire game in which the player attempts to defend Israeli territory from randomized rocket and missile launches from Gaza. What was interesting about this design was not only the speed with which it was produced – again, within two weeks of the actual event – but also that it was featured in the November 28, 2012 issue of Foreign Policy magazine. The files to the map, counters and rules were linked to the online version of an article by Michael Peck, a journalist who was also a gamer. Readers were invited to download them, print them out, and make comments and suggestions.
  • Ukrainian Crisis: in March 2014, the people of the Crimea held a referendum to decide whether they should stay in Ukraine. This was a drastic escalation of the brinkmanship and potential violence in the region. So, I did what anyone with an interest in current events and a few hours on his hands would do: within 48 hours I designed an analog newsgame on the political, military and information warfare dimensions of the crisis. I posted the print and play game files to my webpage for free download on the evening of March 16, the day of the referendum itself. It’s been available as a free Print and Play from my website ever since.
Material for A Reign of Missiles

All three examples above were later published in traditional physical format, but it’s important to note that initially, it was possible for players to differ with the designer on his analysis and offer critiques and alternatives, almost in real time.

James Dunnigan said about wargames: “if you can play them, you can design them.” He meant that playing an analog game brings its players into intimate contact with the game’s design and mechanics, expressed through its rules. The player cannot help but be exposed to its structure, logic and intent in a very different way from the code that underlies a digital game. More importantly, this gives power to the person who likes to play games and has something to say, in that the game can easily be changed – that is, altered, subverted, parodied or even inverted – to suit their own purposes and inclinations. It’s this critical, questioning attitude that especially applies to analog newsgames, of all types, and I think that taking this to heart gives an obvious added dimension and potential function to the term “citizen journalism.”

We can be our own observers and interpreters of events through blogging and use of social media. We can also go deeper and explore the processes that gave rise to these events, or speculate on their direction. And we can prompt others to do the same, not just through words on a screen, but through games; games made – and played – on paper.

 

[NOTE: this blog post is excerpted and edited from my chapter in the upcoming “EuroWargames” anthology, edited by Jan Heinemann, Riccardo Massini, and Fred Serval.]

Click here for our Interview with Brian Train