Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oil Springs of Catan and Ethical Gaming

Catan: Oil Springs is an impressive, free-to-download variant to the Mother of all Eurogames. Settlers on the island of Catan have struck oil. This new resource can be used like gold, or added to other resources to upgrade a City to a Metropolis. Its use, however, comes with a price: for every five oil used, an environmental disaster strikes. Based on the roll of the dice, this could be the removal of coastal settlements or the pollution of tiles so they no longer produce resources.

I won't pretend to agree with its anti-oil politics, but I have to give the designers credit for turning out an intelligent variant for Settles of Catan. The scenario is the work of Erik Assadourian and Ty Hansen, and was developed as part of Transforming Cultures Project of the Worldwatch Institute. Clearly, it was created with an agenda, despite protests to the contrary:
While taking on issues of pollution and climate change, we strongly wish to emphasize that we do not see this as a polarizing political effort, but simply as a way to draw attention to the tradeoffs inherently embedded in the usage of natural resources such as oil. The use of oil has brought with it great benefits, and it is not our intention to condemn its use in a general sense. However, science has shown that its overuse is now having a destabilizing effect on our climate, and responsible use has become more important than ever before. Our intention with this scenario is to draw attention to these challenges in a way that is both educational and enjoyable.

Given the design of the game, this claim is just silly. Using oil wipes out settlements and turns the landscape into a wasteland, which kind of makes it a "polarizing political effort" even for those of us who support common sense solutions to sustainability. I have no problem with that, mind you. If you have a case to make, make it boldly. Just don't pretend you're not creating a fairly obvious piece of anthropogenic global warming propaganda.

Those issues aside, I like it, with minor reservations. The new rules radically change the dynamics, forcing people to interact at a different level to make decisions about exploitation of oil. I'm not sure how much life it will have, since its agit-prop origins give it the grim, "eat your peas" tone of a lecture. The balance of the game is a bit off. Environmental catastrophe is an inevitable byproduct of using oil. This is only slightly mitigated by the ability of players to "sequester" oil, which involves shutting down oil production. (Do this three times and you gain 1 victory point.)

Thus, the game functions more like a social experiment, as players try to convince others not to pull the oil trigger even though it could mean victory. Since the point of playing is to win, this isn't really a reasonable approach from a perspective of pure gamesmanship. Opting out of a game-winning strategy in the interest of burnishing your environmental credibility in front of three-to-five other people shifts the focus from "game" to "social statement."

The issue of ethics and moral decision making in gaming is a deep and fascinating subject that has played an increasing role in computer and video game design over the past few years, but hasn't really made an impact on conventional gaming. This is largely because board games lack the character and narrative elements that make moral choices possible. With Oil Springs, some of that ethical decision making comes to Catan, but not quite as effectively. Video and computer games almost always provide a balanced approach to moral decisions: good or evil choices produce different results without stopping the game cold. There's less of that balance in Oil Springs. Evil has a name, and it is Oil. Every disaster roll produces a disaster. Catastrophe is inevitable. This changes the gaming dynamic from "dialog" to "lecture," with a pre-ordained outcome.

You can print out all the rules and pieces for free. Attach them to card stock or cardboard for better play. 


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