Hate the Empire, Love the Game

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Exalted Funeral

To walk into a PAX is to be assaulted by high decibels, anaconda lines, and a miles-wide buffet of percolating games. PAX Unplugged rolls a little looser than the others, and stocks the chafing dishes primarily with meeples and cardboard, as per the branding. It’s a classic blessing/curse scenario—there’s too much to choose from, and to pick a game is to accept that you won’t be playing the thousands of others available, which can lead to analysis paralysis, system shock, and eventually, one’s demise.

But my PAXU crew and I could not stop for death as we waltzed in late on our first day, with scant few minutes to find something to play before social obligations required us elsewhere. This pressure lead us to the real secret of PAXU (beyond bringing your own gang to sidle up to every table ready to throw bones), which is the First Look section of the Tabletop Freeplay zone. Plenty of crisp titles are laid out and waiting to get scooped by a group, with Enforcers/volunteers stalking the aisles to dispense technical knowledge if necessary. You’re limited to what’s available, but rather than sifting through the dregs of the always already-picked freeplay library the First Look area is stuffed with cuts fresh from the game design farm on their way to the market. There’s a little hype ginned up for most of them, plenty of niche genres and complexities, and best of all, almost always something ready to have a one-to-one with you and your posse.

So as the hourglass’s sand poured over us we scanned a few tables and got tractor-beamed to the first open game nearby, which happened to be It’s a Wonderful World. Though we were wary of the heaping cards, colorful blocks, and punched tokens, the choice was made and we committed to at least a couple of turns. We played as we read, setting up the board as the diagrams instructed, doling out cards that barely hinted at meaning, and made decisions with as little rationality as possible.

A game of It’s a Wonderful World lasts four turns, each of which starts with drawing cards, choosing one, and then passing your hand around to choose again until nearly all cards have been claimed. Then you can use those cards either as materials, or projects for your budding empire, the completion of which gives you an exponential amount of resources on subsequent turns. It’s easy to play this game with your eyes almost completely downwards, but the savviest tycoon keeps at least one peeper on their enemies in order to sabotage their plans, as everything is face up for the group to assess. The final turn can swing towards or away from anyone’s favor, depending how you’ve been able to adequately utilize the gains from completed projects to fast-lane some final ones to multiply your points well into the double digits, hopefully way beyond (or at least enough to merely surpass) your fellow empire-building scum/friends.

We were blown away by not only how easy It’s a Wonderful World was to pick up and learn, but by how much fun it was despite the lack of any deep interpersonal activity. Passing the hands around was the majority the back and forth, and it’s a fantastic mechanic to keep the ravages of randomness from overwhelming any single player, forcing each to carefully consider the direction of not only their LLC(s), but those of their cherished buddies and begrudged opponents.

As a resource-management game, It’s a Wonderful World isn’t remarkably deep, which is a thick check the pro column for me. You aren’t managing shipping lanes or supply-chain logistics, rather, you’re cobbling together the best damn Rube Goldberg machine based on the cards provided. Of those cards, there are enough to make sure that banking on a particular one popping up to push you over the threshold of total domination will likely disappoint rather than entrench your living-legend-CEO status, so the best players are able to run fast and loose with what the shuffle provides. It’s a management game meant to draw in beginners, and it worked well enough that just these two early matches convinced my homie to track down a copy in the expo, of which we were told they were selling out fast. But then again, that could have just been solid #sponcon, you can’t trust anyone nowadays. Regardless, it worked, and this game, the first we played of the con, was our most-played (well, after my day-long Netrunner tournament).

And if I’m being honest, had I done some research on the game before just sitting down and giving it ago at the behest of a ticking clock, I would have likely passed. CEO’s are scum, being a billionaire is an amoral and indefensible position as millions around the world suffer, and I’m much more interested in burning down empires than building them up. Of course this is just the dressing for It’s a Wonderful World and my enjoyment of the game can and should be separated from my personal views on the visual scaffolding, and I certainly don’t fault the designers for building out their terrific title from what is a culturally significant thematic frame pulled from historic and contemporary times. This game could have been about baseball and I’d feel the same way (sorry baseball stans). The truth is that aesthetic is a major first draw in board games, books, movies, culture at large, which is why it’s sometimes nice to skip past any potential for aversion to crack the succulent nut underneath.

And I’d like to think, that if somehow I’d built an empire on the ashes of my enemies and their failed robo-animal and moon teleporter schemes, that I’d reveal my long con and utilize that wealth to solve the actual, human problems that plague our planet. But until that impossibility comes true, I’ll play the deranged capitalist in It’s a Wonderful World, learn all their abhorrent tricks, and cultivate plans burn the rest down from the inside.

// Levi Rubeck is a critic and poet currently living in the Boston area. Check his links at levirubeck.com.

Casting Deep Meteo, Games