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When I mention that I’m working on a game about urban planning, the first reaction I get is often “oh, you mean like SimCity?”
Not exactly. SimCity is the most well-known city planning game/toy of all time. It teaches a particular brand of city-planning knowledge. You, as the planner, allocate resources across a grid in a technocratic (possibly totalitarian) exercise. Evaluating SimCity as rhetoric, it is probably one of the more persuasive pieces of media on urban planning ever designed (how many people have learned biases about siting toxic facilities by playing this game?).
But what exactly is learned by playing Sim City?
Succeeding at Sim City (just like any other game) involves learning and mastering the rules of a system.
The rules in this case, happen to be models of how a real city might work. SimCity insofar as it is a winnable “game” is a series of interrelated hidden assumptions for the player to discover through trial and error. Does building more police precincts reduce crime and civil unrest? Yes, according to SimCity. Is a low-tax base critical to popular support, also yes!
Paul Starr has a great article about the Congressional Budget Office and the Simcitification of actual government here.
Rosten Woo is a designer, planner, and popular educator who recently moved to L.A. from N.Y. after several years as Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. He has partnered with Gilda to design an urban planning game that introduces people to the purpose and politics of zoning—the invisible rules that make cities look the way they do. What follows is the first in a series of Rosten’s thoughts on the experience of making the game.
Games as political education?
We started this project with the goal of making an on-line encapsulation of some of the popular education work that Gilda had been producing here in Los Angeles (which was wonderfully parallel with some of my last work with the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP).
As Gilda has chronicled earlier, our research process took a (rather extended) detour from a digital space to a board game. Workshopping ideas in a board-game format allows us to test out interaction ideas in a live setting (with real people) with pretty low costs (snacks, ink cartridges, and paper) and quick turnaround times. Though the eventual on-line learning environment we create will probably be pretty dramatically different from the boardgames we are testing, we’re learning quite a lot – and at the end of the process we’ll have a board game, too.
There are a lot of reasons that making a board game about land use issues seems like a no-brainer fit:
1. The format is inherently spatial, many of the most popular boardgames deal with territory and real estate (Risk, Monopoly, Settlers of Catan).
2. Games provide a set structure for interaction and engagement that people are familiar with and enjoy. Games encourage social learning and (can) generate laughter, personal connections. Ideal for popular education workshops.
3. Games can give players access to roles and points of view that may be different than their own. This is a critical part of thinking about planning, land use, and zoning in particular.
Gilda’s Gaming Adventure continues…
Today I planned to share my experience with the 1970 board game, SMOG. But that’s not going to happen. For two reasons:
- I didn’t play the game. You would think an urban planner who lives in L.A. could just instinctively play something called SMOG. But I couldn’t figure it out! (Maybe one of you already knows how and can teach me?).
- Another game opportunity appeared! Tony Chavira – fourstory.org associate editor and Havana travel-buddy — and I had a little comment exchange on my post about Monopoly City:
Tony: Gilda! I’d love to help you take the game Risk and replace troops and cards with money and lobbyist goals.
Gilda: OK! Let’s do it. Just so you know….you will have to teach me Risk. I’m new at the game thing, but jumping right in.
Tony: Let me know when and we’ll put it together! i’ll even bring over my own version of risk and we can play. it’s essentially a world-war game where you’re given strategies on cards and actual military. i’d probably add another rule that you collect cards (more troops in the game, which will be government cash for redevelopment probably) when you lobby for it. but the game has strategy cards, so yeah… more fun to be had!
So that’s what happened.
Gilda’s Gaming Adventure continues…
Metropolis is another “German” game (see last week’s post which explains what German games are all about), that was released in 1984 by Ravensburger, a 125-year-old German company (actually based in Ravensburg).
The game was designed, however, by the very American Sid Sackson (1920-2002) a well-known game maker, collector, and writer. Board Game Geek offers a quote from Sackson, that nicely sums up what people like about “German” or “designer” games:
(A good game) should be easy to learn yet have infinite strategic possibilities, give you the chance to make choices, create interaction among players and take a maximum of one and a half hours to play.
Metropolis has all those characteristics. I bought it because it contains some urban planning ideas, the primary one being that the value of buildings goes up or down depending on what’s near them: Home values go down when a factory moves next door, or go up when a school is added to the neighborhood or if the building has a view of the park. The game includes some abstractions of zoning and land assembly. The game dynamics involve choosing cards that have the same number on them as squares on the board, claiming property with colored game pieces, and rules that limit what you can do on blocks where another player has assembled a lot of land.
There are a lot of opportunities for trading, dealing, and joining forces to get things done. And therein lies the strategy and the fun. I also got some good ideas about game mechanics for our zoning game (which was my goal) from playing the game. And I’m starting to enjoy this whole board game experience beyond that investigation.
Metropolis is out of print. I got my version from a trader on the Board Game Geek Marketplace, which is in German, Italian, and French. My seller included several versions of English translations of the instructions. Probably the most versions or translations of instructions I’ve every seen. Definitely got my money’s worth there.
The more I experience great board games, the more I realize that game design is truly and art and the more interested I become in learning about the designers themselves. If you share that interest, The Great Games of Sid Sackson is a nice little website that features an overview of Sackson’s work, descriptions of his games, a list of his books, and an interview.
Next week: Smog (yes, its a board game)
Gilda’s Gaming Adventure continues…
This game has nothing to do with the Havana of Che, Fidel, or the Buena Vista Social Club. “The revolution in Cuba is over. Now, many magnificent buildings are being built in the capital city Havana to make it gleam in renewed splendor,” explains the game. And that’s the story.
In the game, players collect building material, workers and pesos in an effort to produce the most valuable collection of buildings. At the outset of the game, each player receives an identical set of 13 (cool-looking) action cards, which they can only play two at a time to get the resources (material, workers, and pesos) they need to acquire buildings.
Each card, however, has a different value. More powerful cards have higher values. Whoever starts out with the least valuable cards gets to go first and thus has the first shot at the buildings.
After each round, more money and material are put out, and a new round begins with each player replacing one of the two cards, discarding the other, and then the turn order is determined again.
I like this game, Havana. It is really pretty. The game pieces have a nice look and feel. Even the box has a great look and feel. The game designer’s name is on the box (Credit where credit is due. I’m for that).
The game has simple rules, but it isn’t boring. It is engaging and involves strategic thinking. You need to figure out what the other players are going to do.
These all work for my non-gamer, easily distracted self.
It turns out that all of these things that I like are decided and deliberate characteristics of what is known in the world of board games (and the world in general) as German games.