Inside the world of contemporary board game design

Modern board games can help us understand complex real world scenarios, while also having fun. We take a look inside the current boom for new games and how they are designed

The cover of Daybreak, a new cooperative board game exploring climate change, presents an optimistic vision of the near future with a sunrise breaking over a rainbow-hued street scene. “It’s not to be glib or Pollyanna-ish about it,” says designer Matt Leacock. “The game is really hard.”

As world powers race to slow emissions using technologies and policies, players work together to defeat the main opponent — the game itself. The wooden game pieces become representative of weighty real-world carbon. “When you’ve gathered all your emissions as a mass of gray cubes that you dump into the atmosphere,” he says, “there is a visceral, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’”

As cultural spaces, board games have a particular advantage in shaping the way we think. Climate change isn’t easily communicable. Media often induces apathy instead of motivation, but tabletop board games do the opposite. “You have to play it and you internally feel what that struggle is like and you can tacitly understand the trade offs involved,” Leacock continues. “We don’t have to tell you all this stuff, you just experience it.”

Daybreak box scene square
Top: Card from Daybreak board game, illustration by Edward Tuckwell; Above: Daybreak board game by Matt Leacock Games
Daybreak gameboard illo by Mads Berg
Daybreak game board, illustration by Mads Berg

This might be why we need board games more than ever. The Rules We Break, the latest book from Eric Zimmerman, professor of game design at the NYU Game Center and award-winning designer, explains why. “The 21st century might be termed a Ludic Century,” he writes in the introduction, “an epoch in which games and play are the model for how we interact with culture and with each other.”