Nudge (2019)

Game Details
NameNudge (2019)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityLight [0.00]
Player Count (recommended)2 (Unset)
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: More laudable as an exemplar than as a game

A review copy of Nudge was provided by Nudge Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.

It’s weird to think that those reading this post are perhaps living in the last few generations of humanity. Look ahead over the next fifty years. Consider to what we have to look forward. Apocalyptic climate change. Increasingly polarized political extremism encouraged, endorsed and knowingly leveraged by civic authority. The looming mass graves of the inevitable water wars. Excessive globalisation that has created a capitalist plutocratic class with more unchecked power than any historical God-emperor. When people tell me my diet and lifestyle are shortening my lifespan all I can really say is ‘Wow, I sure hope so’.

Human beings are terrible at forward forecasting though and not an awful lot better at drawing lessons from the past. The future versions of us, cognitively speaking, are different people. That creates a disassociation. Combined with the overbearing futility that comes with the trivial local impact of our activities this creates incentives for inaction. When talking about psychological costs and benefits with my students, I sometimes ask how many of them genuinely believe climate change is destroying the planet. Most hands go up, because I work in a university and they’re smart kids.

‘What are you even doing here?’, I ask. Some laugh nervously. ‘Why are you learning about software design when your very existence is at stake? If you believe climate change is destroying the planet, when do you think you’ll ever be able to take advantage of what you learn here?’

We overvalue the short-term and undervalue the long term and in the process cocoon ourselves in denial. We’re just small actors. We don’t bear any responsibility for what we do. We’re good people. We’re not the problem.

Look at your board game collection. Do you have any conception of the amount of environmental harm that is represented by any one of its entries? Every square inch of empty air in a box represents additional cardboard, extra storage, extra shipping costs, and the attendant increase in carbon. One-use plastic wrapping is contributing to pollution in the ocean. Every plastic insert you threw out because it was unbearably awful is fodder for a landfill. Don’t even get me started on the gamified disposability that is a core part of your average legacy game.

Very little of the plastic in our economic systems is recycled. A single board game may not represent meaningful harm in and of itself but make no mistake – every one you buy is damaging the planet. There is no ethical or environmentally harmless consumption under capitalism. The only real saving grace in a board game is that we tend to recycle them – not in terms of waste disposal but in terms of passing or selling them on. We tend to keep them, not discard them. Every new game on your shelf is an ecological pain point but at least the intensity tends to diminish over time.

All things decay though. All things fall apart. The centre does not hold. Eventually all games slouch towards the Pacific Ocean to live undying.

This was supposed to be a review of Nudge and yet it looks like extracts from Al Gore’s future suicide letter. Bear with me though. This isn’t a depressive incident that leaked onto the page. I’m going somewhere with all of this.

Nudge box

Let’s get the game itself out of the way. Each player takes possession of three discs, and places them in an appropriate starting configuration on the board. Each turn, a player can move a disc twice – north, south, east or west. When discs are formed up in a line, the line or part of the line can be moved as one train of discs. If you outnumber an opponent you can ‘nudge’ their disc when you move yours. The winner of the game is the first player to nudge an opponent’s disc off of the side. That’s the whole game.

Nudge board

It’s a simple idea. Elegant, even. Unfortunately it’s not one that really has a lot going on. It feels like an interesting game mechanism that hasn’t yet found an actual game in which to be integrated. The board is too tight to give much freedom of movement and the two-move rule means that you never have the agility to actually accomplish much in a turn. Mostly play is characterised by you setting up a train sufficiently powerful to nudge a disc and then your opponent moving the target disc out of the way. To move a disc from one side of its neighbour to the next is an act of two moves and that’s your entire turn. As such, rather than precision strikes and clever tactical play you get a game that feels more like dealing with the momentum of a boxy car doing a three point turn in tight constraints. It’s an abstract game without the toolkit that underpins this kind of thing.

Moving pieces

Let me explain that in reference to an abstract we likely all know – chess. Chess has its various movement rules and conventions, but locked in those systems is a powerful set of tools for forcing an opponent into making an unfortunate move. For example, when the king is in check the king must always move into a non-check position and that means that anything the king was blocking becomes available for capture. Similarly, pieces can pin others to the king (or pieces more valuable than they are), or fork pieces so that an opponent is losing something no matter what they do. Nudge doesn’t have anything like that, and as such it relies on your opponent making unforced errors. It’s a bit like a game of tennis where you only get to score a point when someone double faults a serve.

More moving pieces

As such, almost everything you do in Nudge is a case of moving pieces in the safest ways until you get a chance, mostly without your engineering it, to push a disc off the side. It’s a lot of activity with not an awful lot of purpose. You’ll spend 95% of the game mirroring the configurations of your opponent until you either get lucky or manage to box one of their discs in a corner… which you also do by getting lucky.

In some respects it’s a little bit like Onitama in that it’s an exercise in waiting for the right time to strike and an awful lot of half-hearted positioning will dominate the game until someone manages to shift the balance of power. Onitama though benefits from asymmetrical opportunity – a good player picks moves that flow into each other on the basis of the way cards cycle in and out of their hands. Nudge is perfectly symmetrical and thus those opportunities for advantageous flow never occur.

Win condition

It’s not at all a bad idea. It just needs developed into a proper game. That said, the accessibility teardown for this one is going to have a lot of good things to say so hold off on forming your judgement until you check that out.

Okay, so what was all the apocalyptic doom-saying at the start about?

I accepted a review copy of Nudge despite it being pretty far outside our wheelhouse. I’ll disclose an important bias here – I did so because I wanted to enthuse about elements of its manufacturing. I may not be able to be too complimentary about the game itself, but it was pitched at least in part on its environmental consciousness and I think you can see that reflected in every aspect of what you get.

Inside the box

Look at that packaging – a piece of string that binds together a paper envelope and the board. The box has the feel and consistency of a pizza box, and is FSC certified. That is to say, sourced from cardboard that is conformant with the sustainability principles of the Forest Stewardship Council. The board is ‘fully recycled grey-board’. Single colour print to minimise production cost. ‘Fully biodegradable starch-based bioplastic’ for the pieces. I didn’t have to research any of that – it’s all on the back of the box for anyone to see. Nudge signals its environmental credentials to everyone that picks it up. And sure, much like with an electric car a lot of that environmental friendly design simply changes where the environmental impact is recorded. But that’s important, because it moves that impact to parts of the supply chain where improvements can have a genuine effect.

Environmental information

There’s a large degree of performative piety in environmentalism. Consider the plastic straw ban for example which has a vanishingly small impact on the planet and a non-trivial impact on the life circumstances and safety of disabled people. I honestly don’t know how impactful any of the environmental features of Nudge are likely to be, but I do know that I don’t feel a lot of guilt at having it on my shelves. As indicated earlier there’s no such thing as ‘harmless’ under capitalism but insofar as it is possible it feels like it’s a game that does very little harm. That’s important in an industry where active harm has been made a selling point for consumerism. Every time you are compelled to back a game on Kickstarter because of its excessively overproduced miniatures, that’s a commodification of environmental damage. Nudge even has me considering adjusting the teardown template for Meeple Like Us to take into account ‘harm done’. That will need me to educate myself on how to rate that quantitatively or qualitatively but that’s the power of a game that wears its advocacy on its (box) sleeve.

The simple facts of its production make me feel like I should be doing more in this space to promote games that do what they can to encourage us to engage responsibility with our environmental obligations. Even if every board game in the world was produced around ‘zero harm’ it wouldn’t make a fraction of a dent in the overall damage we’re all doing to the planet. It may not even be a case of ‘every little helps’ at this point. That doesn’t mean we should let ourselves off the hook of trying to do better. I may not have enjoyed Nudge much as a game, but I can’t think of another title that has left me reflecting quite so deeply on my own consumerism. In the end, perhaps the real value of Nudge is as an exemplar for how the entire industry could be more mindful of its own responsibilities.

A review copy of Nudge was provided by Nudge Games in exchange for a fair and honest review.