Here at Unwinnable, we have a low opinion of “the game take.” Ludology won’t clarify politics, romance, child-rearing, etc. any better than other media. We aren’t cawing that games should simply be “fun,” especially since so many seem to miss the mark in that department anyways. Videogames are just another avenue to explore the various shades of human life, with faults and strengths all their own. So you can launch your fatherhood issues and Trump thinkpieces into the sun, thank you.
Yet it’s hard to deny that we are currently cursed to live in interesting times. To ignore the throb and pulse of the world would be akin to saying nothing at all. Games need not reflect politics directly, but our neuroses usually find a way to sneak in regardless. This year’s PAX East was rife with games, many as vapid as a vape cloud, but quite a few sought to address the current state of the world without preening itself into an faux-earth-shattering statement. Hexadecimate, a co-op card game from Seth Alter at Subaltern games, is a poignant reaction to the state of the world that has no false ambitions about singularly smashing the state.
In Hexadecimate, three-to-five millennial players form a witches’ coven to take down the perverse occult magic of the alt-right known as the “FrogBoard.” The players pull from a single stack of ingredient cards to cast into a shared cauldron, while a separate deck spits 4Chan and Twitter inspired sigils and operations that sap their strength and weaken their charms. “The witches must work together and support each other,” Seth says, emphasizing support. Since hand sizes are limited, no single witch can hope to cast enough magic to fend off the quite painful sigils and even worse objectives, which limit cards even further and wound the casters as well. The crone sisters need to communicate when tossing cards like “expired ibuprofen” and “liquid crystal” into the cauldron, which shuffles everything into a great goop and spits the cards out again at random. Depending on how they line up, the intended spells may or may not be cast—this is by design, as magic is wild and unpredictable.
Playing a few quick rounds of this game, each player is never certain if the group’s spells will stand up to the task of crushing online fascists and the like. Seth even admits that Hexadecimate is quite difficult when players first start, embodying its prescient theme. But as the coven learns to share their hands and collaborate on intense arcana, the odds turn in their favor, though the unpredictable nature of the boiling pot never offers too much certainty.
While playing Hexadecimate Seth explained to me his process—primarily a digital game designer, this one was a chance to spread his leathery creative wings. He was inspired by articles about witches coming together to cast magic against Trump, and being based in Salem, Massachusetts, couldn’t turn down the opportunity to twine tarot and the news and spread the result across as many tabletops as possible. He said that he had to do a bit of research into the alt-right itself in order to flavor the cards, which include references to the aforementioned digital cesspools as well as “swatting,” “red pill,” and so forth. This was fairly taxing Seth said, because alt-right symbology is so boring and repetitive.
But Seth wanted to do his due diligence, including playtests with people who weren’t exactly the core demographic for a game about millennial witches. One of these players was his father, who came to really love the rules of the game but kept asking why it had to be so political. Others were a little befuddled by the extremely “online” nature of these subjects, but they got past the esoteric window-dressing to enjoy and offer feedback on the core nature of the game itself.
Seth insists that Hexadecimate isn’t a protest though, and that games can’t really act as such. This was a catharsis for him, dealing with the constant influx of national bullshit the best way he knew how. It’s an exercise in self-expression, a call for solidarity against monsters, but not a replacement for boots on the street. He sees this Wiccan gathering as a necessary act of optimism, which is a take I can get behind.
Hexadecimate can be pre-ordered now and is scheduled to come out near October 2018.