Tue
Apr 12 2011 4:29pm

11 Games Depicting Dystopias Past, Present, and Future

Okay, to be honest, most of these games are dystopian visions of the future. They are either based on, or borrow heavily from, books, movies, and even television shows with which we are very familiar. Some are deadly serious, others are over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek parodies of society gone haywire. This list is not in any particular order but there is a glaring omission. Watch Tor.com later in the week for an overview of the mother of all dystopian game settings....

Battlestar Galactica the Board Game

The survival of humanity hangs by a thread. Fewer than 50,000 survivors flee extinction from Cylon xenocide on a rag-tag fleet of ships protected only by the aging Battlestar Galactica and her crew. Fuel and food are running short, morale is low, the population is dwindling, and to make matters worse, there are Cylons among us spreading mistrust, intrigue, and ultimately betrayal.

Battlestar Galactica the Board Game

As I’ve mentioned before, the history of games based on licensed properties is notoriously bad. Game designer Corey Konieczka (Mansions of Madness, Space Hulk: Death Angel – the Card Game among others) and publisher Fantasy Flight Games have proven just how wrong generalizations can be. Battlestar Galactica the Board Game faithfully recreates the tensions of the re-imagined series for 3 to 6 players although this game really shines with its full complement of players. For many gamers comfortable with long, immersive games (3 to 4 hours) Battlestar Galactica the Board Game tops their list of best games ever. Don’t worry if you were disappointed by the series finale, the game is absolutely great.

Battlestar Galactica the Board GameOn its surface Battlestar Galactica the Board Game is a cooperative game with each player taking the role of one of the major characters of the series. The Galactica and her crew are beset with a series of crises and Cylon attacks as they attempt jump after jump, limping their way toward Earth. Each player’s character provides a unique set of skills and special abilities to help resolve these crises. Protecting the fleet and maintaining vital resources would be difficult enough, but there’s a catch. One or more players are secretly Cylons actively working against the human players. Early in the game Cylon players work covertly, subtly trying to drain resources and sabotage the progress of the fleet while spreading blame and suspicion on others. The situation only gets worse when a Cylon’s cover is blown and they begin to play openly. The heart of Battlestar Galactica the Board Game isn’t in military conflict; it’s about suspicion, trust, and the interaction between players. It perfectly captures the essence of the series.

Battlestar Galactica the Board Game

Battlestar Galactica the Board Game can be found in full service game stores, online, and even in some big-box book retailers for about $35-$45. Two expansions are available: Battlestar Galactica: Pegasus extends the journey from Kobol to Caprica, adds seven new human characters, a Cylon leader, and greatly expands the supply of cards. Battlestar Galactica: Exodus is a collection of three mini-expansions and is only recommended for experienced players. Collectively the Exodus expansions can increase the role of military conflict and blur the distinction between Cylon and human objectives, often pitting players on the same side against one-another with individual agendas.

 

Android

Murder, conspiracy, a chance for personal redemption; Android follows 3 to 5 player-detectives in the dystopian city of New Angeles over a two week period as they attempt to solve a murder case, unravel corporate and political conspiracies, and deal with their own inner demons.

Android the Board Game

I’ve already covered Android in a review for Tor.com and I’ll refer readers to that post for details. In brief, Android is highly competitive with each detective having their own special abilities, strengths, and weaknesses and requires players to adapt their strategies to take advantage of each. Android is truly cinematic in scope and successfully captures the neo-noir feel of a film like Blade Runner. It also borrows heavily from classic science fiction themes in I, Robot, Neuromancer and others.

Android was designed by Daniel Clark, Kevin Wilson (co-developer of Arkham Horror), published by Fantasy Flight Games, and can be played in 3 to 4 hours. It can be found in full service games stores and online for about $40. While an expansion for Android is unlikely at this time, Fantasy Flight Publishing has just released a novel titled Free Fall set in the Android environment.

 

Road Kill Rally / Wreckage / Car Wars

Unleash your inner road rage with this trio of violent board games. Let’s face it, movies like Death Race 2000 and its younger sibling Death Race are guilty pleasures. Imagine how much easier your morning commute would be with an anti-tank gun strapped to the roof. Even landmark movies like the Mad Max series appeal in part to these baser instincts.

Car Wars board gameEach of these games allows players to experience the excitement of tongue-in-cheek state sponsored vehicular homicide in the safety of their dining room. Veteran gamers of a certain age will probably remember playing Car Wars in the early 1980s. The game featured a complex vehicle construction process and had rules more akin to miniatures gaming than board games. Fifth edition Car Wars is still available from Steve Jackson Games in limited quantities. It has been simplified to match modern tastes for a faster, more accessible game. Vehicle construction is no longer officially recognized in favor of pre-designed cars although unofficial construction rules are available. If you’re looking for “realism” in car combat, Car Wars is the way to go.

Wreckage table top game Road Kill Rally from Z-Man Games and Wreckage from Fantasy Flight Games are both much more modern takes on the cars with guns theme. Wreckage, designed by Darrell Hardy and Barry Stockinger, focuses entirely on vehicle to vehicle combat for 2 to 4 players in an open arena. Wreckage is the simpler of the two games but regrettably FFG may have overshot the mark. Movement has been streamlined to the point where players have little control over their vehicles and games can degenerate into a chaotic mess.

Road Kill Rally table top gameRoad Kill Rally, designed by Daniel George, hits the sweet spot for balance between complexity and fun. 3 to 6 players customize their vehicles with a choice of weapon, armor, and one additional accessory. The race is conducted over a series of tiles displaying a narrow two lane road littered with hazards and pedestrians. Players score points by shooting each other, running over or shooting pedestrians, and by finishing the race in one of the top 3 slots. Road Kill Rally is filled with macabre humor. Pedestrians are divided into children, adults, and senior citizens with the latter being worth the most points, orbital lasers can rain death on your opponents, and a dashboard Jesus can prevent a devastating wipe out. The humor isn’t for everyone but if you’re not easily offended, Road Kill Rally is lots of fun.

Wreckage and Road Kill Rally can be found at full service game stores and online for $20 and $40 respectively.

 

The Resistance

The Resistance table top gameThe government is corrupt, the empire must fall. The Resistance is a deduction party game designed by Don Eskridge and published by Indie Boards & Cards for 5 to 10 players that can be played in about 30 minutes. The majority of players are Resistance Operatives attempting to form teams to perform missions against the government. Hidden amongst the operatives are Imperial Spies looking to sabotage those plans. Game play is very simple, most of the interaction comes from players working together to deduce who among them are spies based on the results of each mission. Spies do their best to spread suspicion onto other players. The Resistance is very similar to the games Werewolf and Mafia but does not require the use of a game moderator.

The Resistance can be found at full service game stores and online for about $15.

 

51st State

51st State game

51st State game51st State is a card game of reconstruction and conflict in a post-apocalyptic world as 2 to 4 players attempt to reestablish world order under their faction’s control. The game is designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek and published by Portal Publishing. Players choose one of four ascendant factions; Mutants Union, Merchant Guild, New Yorkers, and Appalachians. Each faction has access to slightly different resources and requires its own strategies for victory. Much of the play centers on bringing location cards into play either by incorporating them into your nascent country, conquering them, or through trade agreements. Most location cards produce additional resources, some convert combinations of resources into victory points. The strategy behind 51st State lies in creating combinations of location cards that interact to efficiently produce victory points.

51st State is just now entering the U.S. market. It will soon be available at full service games stores, it is available online now for about $30.

 

Guillotine / Junta / Twilight Struggle / Labyrinth: War on Terror

I’m going to wrap this post up with a quartet of games depicting real-life dystopias. The first two are light-hearted looks at politics gone awry; the latter two depict the modern world on the brink of disaster. All four games are excellent on their own terms; however, each game targets a very different audience.

Guillotine board gameGuillotine – off with their heads. Despite the subject matter, Guillotine is a light, humorous card game and is suitable for a fairly wide teen to adult audience. It is the end of the French Revolution and players represent executioners, each vying for the most valuable collection of noble heads. Cartoonish representations of nobles are lined up in front of the guillotine marching forward to their doom. Players manipulate the line order with action cards to collect the most notorious nobles while trying to force other players to take less valuable heads or even penalties.

Guillotine was designed by Paul Peterson and published by Wizards of the Coast. It supports 2 to 5 players and can be completed in 30 minutes. Guillotine is available at full service game stores and online for about $12.

 

Junta board gameJunta – It’s good to be El Presidente. Junta is a cutthroat game of political intrigue in La Republica de los Bananas for 2 to 7 players (best with 7) published by West End Games. In Junta players represent the political elite of an island “paradise” and win by amassing the greatest wealth in their private Swiss bank accounts. Each year the current President appoints the remaining players to political offices including control of the military and police (that can’t be good). The President also receives an undisclosed amount of foreign aid from a super power that asks no questions. The President proposes a budget and assigns aid money to other players but it’s never clear how much aid was received in the first place. If the other players don’t think they’re being treated fairly they have plenty of tools at their disposal including bribes, assassinations, and coup attempts. Of course, the President is not without his supporters as well.

 

Junta is a great game but at 4 hours playing time it’s long and moderately complex. Junta: Viva el Presidente! is a new game from Z-Man Games that promises the original Junta experience in 30 minutes. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet but if even comes close it’s worth a look.

Junta is available at full service game stores and online for about $30. Junta: Viva el Presidente! is just making its way into stores but should become available for about $30.

 

Twilight Struggle board game

Twilight Struggle is a two player game in which players engage in cold war nuclear brinksmanship from the development of the atomic bomb to the fall of the Berlin Wall. U.S. and Soviet players must manage hands of event cards depicting nearly every significant geopolitical event in the game’s 44 year span. A world map is used to track the alignment of nations as the world’s two super powers invest influence and conduct the occasional coup to secure their allegiance. Since its publication in 2005 by GMT Games Twilight Struggle has remained at the top of board game rankings and is considered by many to be one of the most intense board game experiences available. Regrettably, Twilight Struggle is temporarily out of print although new and used copies are readily available on eBay for a reasonable price ($30-$60).

 

Labyrinth War on TerrorLabyrinth: The War on Terror uses many of the same mechanics as Twilight Struggle but updates the conflict to the 21st century focusing on the U.S. war against al-Qaeda. Games based on recent or on-going conflicts are always a touchy subject. Labyrinth: The War on Terror’s sober treatment of the conflict has actually generated relatively little controversy with the biggest complaint being it simply isn’t as good a game as Twilight Struggle.

Labyrinth: The War on Terror is available at full service game stores and online for about $40.


When not playing games, Bob Gallo is a computer programmer specializing in Flash and interactive application design living in the Charlotte, NC area. Bob got his gaming start in the mid 1970s with traditional hex-and-counter war games and has played nearly all types of games including role playing games, miniatures, collectible card games, video/PC games as well as traditional board and card games.

12 comments
William Frank
1. scifantasy
I admit that I've only seen the components for Android, not played the game, but it strikes me as more "noir" than "dystopian."

(And if the mother of all dystopian game settings isn't Paranoia, well...yeah, no worries there, I think.)
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
The RPG Apocalypse World is designed so that players and the GM create a dysfunctional dystopic vision of the future.
Rootboy
4. Rootboy
I tried playing the BSG game in a group of 5 once, but we didn't like it and gave up. I keep hearing good things about it, though, so maybe I need to try it again - we might have had too many newbies to serious nerdgames the first time around and spent so much time figuring out the fairly complex rules that we got discouraged.
Rootboy
5. bonehead
There must be hundreds:
Gamma World
Aftermath!
O.G.R.E.
Twilight 2000
Cadilacs and Dinosaurs
Deadlands
The Morrow Project (classic!)

...to name but a few. Countless modules and homebrews too. After Mad Max and Dog and his Boy, everyone wanted to play in the wasteland.
Bob Gallo
6. StormbringerGrey
Android cribs most of its theme unapologetically from Blade Runner which is hailed as an iconic dystopian film … so yes, it’s most definitely noir but with a healthy dose of dystopian background. In play terms the dystopian aspects are most noticed in what society has done to make the 5 player investigators dysfunctional … and of course there is the omnipresent, oppressive corporations.
David Goldfarb
7. David_Goldfarb
I'm guessing that the "glaring omission" here is Warhammer 4oK.
Brian R
8. Mayhem
Definitely Paranoia needs a full mention here, unless it is getting its own article later.
That being said, knowledge of the game is deemed grounds for termination, so maybe he is just playing it safe.
Bob Gallo
9. StormbringerGrey
@[1][2][8] (yes, you have all been reduced to numbers) – I tried penning an article on Paranoia but my computer froze up and a blue screen appeared which read: “Please remain seated and calm, help is on the way”.



Paranoia is thematically perfect for the week but it’s mostly an RPG which is above my security clearance, outside my expertise, and why I overlooked it … at least that’s what I’m going to tell the interrogators when they get here.

For people that have no idea what we’re talking about ignorance is bliss, ignorance is safety, knowledge can only bring harm, continue no further…

Paranoia is an RPG originally published in 1984 (coincidence? I think not.) by West End Games and republished over the years with the most recent 25th anniversary edition published by Mongoose Publishing in 2009. Games take place in the underground megalopolis of Alpha Complex, a tranquil, perfect city run by the friendly, all knowing, and very dysfunctional civil service AI known only as “The Computer”. Players are troubleshooters, The Computer assigns them to incomprehensible missions to find trouble and shoot it.

Life in Alpha Complex is glorious but short. Players are often geared with dangerous, lethal experimental equipment subjected to shoddy quality control and suspiciously little user instruction. Adventures often tumble into chaos with team members assigned orders pitting themselves against one-another as often external threats. There are many secrete societies, your team members can’t be trusted – The Computer says so. When in doubt, terminate. Because trained troubleshooters don’t come cheap, each player controls a set of six clones, known as a 6-pack, which allows new troubleshooters to step in when old troubleshooters are … retired.

To quote the publisher: “Paranoia is fun. Other games are not fun. Buy Paranoia.”
Rootboy
10. darjr
Almost makes me think you did it on purpose.
Rootboy
11. gradstudent
Hello,
i am trying to finish up a paper for my adolescent lit class required for a masters in readng education. the subject is utopias and dystopias and how they relate to The Giver by Lois Lowry, 1993. i am not a game player, but as i am writing this paper i am thinking of my nephews love of dystopian type games. when did they first become popular? around the time of Lowry's book, 1993? or before that? i am curious about the history of theses types of games. critics of her book said young adults would not be interested in dystopias because they wanted cheerful books, they were wrong. especially with dystopia gaming! any thoughts for me? thanks!
Bob Gallo
12. StormbringerGrey
Hi Gradstudent,

I know there were dystopian role playing games all the way back to the 80's (Gamma World, Aftermath, Morrow Project), as for boardgames we had Fortess America, originally printed in 1986 and reprinted in 2012. For an extensive database of games and giant user community, check out:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com

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