In board gaming, fantasy, future, and historical games draw the lion’s share of thematic space. I can’t tell you how many orcs I’ve killed, space ships I’ve destroyed, or goods I’ve grown. But there are some games that go very much off the beaten path. And a rare few that focus on real world or more somber themes. Here are three of the best.
… and then we held hands
In this two player game, you take on the role of a failing relationship. The goal is to move toward the emotional center and find balance. Only by doing so – and doing it together – can you win the game. But if you treat your partner’s feelings lightly, or if you can’t come together, the game is lost.
… and then we held hands incorporates a number of intriguing elements that really elevate the experience. For instance, each player has a hand of cards that can be used to move from emotion to emotion. And you can use the cards from either player. But if your play results in your partner being unable to move, then you’ve just lost. Plus, you aren’t allowed to talk about strategy or game elements with your partner. As a result, you constantly have to intuit what the impact of your move will be on both of you. It produces a reasonable facsimile of gaming empathy.
Another interesting element is that you have to keep yourself in “balance.” Each move affects your mood. Negative emotions like sadness and anger tip your balance one way, while happiness and calm go the other. If you get too far from center, you lose.
…and then we held hands can be deviously difficult. But when successful, the players have a genuine feeling of accomplishment.
The world is warming and it’s up to the players to address the issue. They start as companies trying to create clean energy solutions to slow the amount of carbon entering the atmosphere. Players ultimately want to avoid the carbon levels getting too high – while also making a tidy profit and gaining prestige. If the carbon levels get too high, though, everyone loses. Otherwise, only one winner is declared.
In the early game of CO2, carbon emissions are a serious threat. Players have to work quickly to put green energy solutions on the board before the various countries decide to go all in on traditional energy. Once they get that done, though, it’s easy for the players to turn on each other. One might research a new technology, but another player sees it and builds the plant – reaping the rewards.
The result is an interesting semi-cooperative game where the players are free to push the limits. In fact, sometimes a trailing player will take actions that result in more carbon in the atmosphere. Which forces other leading players to adjust. It’s an interesting system, and a fine representative of the genre.
Freedom: The Underground Railroad
Although historical in nature, Freedom tackles slavery straight on – something other games fail to do. Games like Five Tribes and Puerto Rico are sometimes chastised for their light treatment of historical slavery. Freedom, however, doesn’t shy away from the issue and ultimately comes away with an amazing cooperative experience.
Taking place in the antebellum United States, the players’ goal is to hide and move fleeing slaves from the South to the North and eventually into Canada. As they do so, players will use safe houses, move the individuals only when it is safe, and avoid the bands of slave catchers seeking to return escapees to the plantations.
If you step back from the theme, Freedom is a mechanically decent game. But it’s the theme that really drives the experience. If I lose Pandemic I say ‘oh well’ and try again. Losing Flash Point results in a curse of the dice and nothing more. But every play of Freedom feels meaningful in a way that other titles simply lack. If you have the chance to play it, definitely give this one a try.
What other games have real-world or somber themes? Tell us about it in the comments.
Image Credits: LudiCreations, Stronghold Games, Academy Games
Featured Image Credit: Academy Games