Mary Russell

In my game Nicaea, various bishops and theological issues are represented by cards. But in game terms there's little practical difference between say Saint Nicholas of Myra and Saint Pope Alexander of Alexandria. It treats all the personages as mostly fungible, just as it treats the theological issues being debated as fungible. And this led a couple of folks to opine that the game was essentially themeless. "The names on the cards don't matter! There's no special effects for this person or that one, they're all the same!"

The argument the game is making is that basically everyone was going to sign off on whatever the council decided, and that church history, being first and foremost a type of propaganda, would tell the story of a united church peopled by infallible, holy, perfect Nicene Fathers. It frames the council as a political, temporal event convened to cement and confer legitimacy. And so, the fungible nature of the cards is in many ways the point. That is the theme.

But there's a pervasive and shallow surface conflation of "cute one-off card effects and bonuses" with "theme" that just drives me up the wall. I mean, maybe that is thematic for a game in which the theme is just window-dressing, where it primarily exists to make the mechanisms "click", to immerse the players or coax them in, making them comfy.

What I'm trying to do, however, is use the form polemically, to make actual arguments, express anger, and show systems of oppression at work. All those shiny whatzits distract from the particular arguments I'm making. In fact, in Nicaea their inclusion would be working directly against the game's argument. That exclusion was purposeful.

So, too, was their exclusion from This Guilty Land. It's a game about obstructive centrism, and about how bad faith arguments made against progress in 1850 are the same bad faith arguments made today, enabled by the same calls for tone policing and compromise. The nuances of the specific arguments and excuses don't matter in that context. Their omission is an important component of the game's argument, and a means to focus on the exhausting, grinding, frustrating deadlock. In order to do much of anything, you have to fight the game itself – that is, you have to struggle to work within a system that is purpose-built to break down. And even then, what Justice does in the framework of the game – polite debate and weaselly compromises in hopes that this time, you'll convince oppressors to maybe stop oppressing pretty please – will never actually accomplish anything. Civil debate in the marketplace of ideas: this framing is a tool of oppression.

And some people who play the game will feel that frustration and that futility, will be exhausted by the purposeful clunkiness of the game's political machinery, and will despair over how little they managed to accomplish - and after all that, somehow they walk away from the game feeling that it was themeless.

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