#refugee is a card game that purports to convey how people should not be judged by where they come from, set against the backdrop of a real-life refugee crisis. I don’t know that it succeeds, but it’s still a fun game to play, with some caveats.
Welcome back to Boter Reviews Something. This week we’re taking a look at a pre-release copy of the game #refugee, currently being funded on Kickstarter.
Full disclosure: Because #refugee is in pre-release, the copy we had was not final. It may change between now and final production, and the rules will likely be worked over carefully. Where the game falls short, I will try to determine if it is something inherent to the game’s core or if it is something that can be addressed before its full release, and will likely be somewhat lenient knowing that it’s not in its final form yet.
#refugee seems to be named in a way to try to capture social media attention – it will be hard to talk about it on Twitter without it being a tag, resulting in it getting lost in a sea of real-world refugee news and conversation. (Or, people looking for serious conversation will find something light-hearted about the game and not be pleased.) Not totally sold on the hashtag in front? There’s no real metaphor of social media in the game, so it seems… unnecessary. But hey, that’s a paragraph given to the game’s title out of the way, let’s move onto the game itself.
How It Plays
In #refugee, the goal is to accept refugees into your country who are Good People, while not letting in Bad People. (These are not labels used in-game, that’s just Boter speak.) You start with a person, with a face, region of origin (Middle East, Asia, North America and Latin America, with more in expansions), and an age. They are at the gates of your country, trying to get in, but before they being admitted, they need to have three Vetting Cards applied to them.
Vetting Cards have points attached, from -4 to +4, and can also interact with other cards providing further bonuses. When a Refugee has three cards, they are admitted into the country, and that point total is added to the player’s score. When someone gets eight Refugees, the game ends, and points are tallied. There are bonuses for matching refugees with cards of their home region (which I only found out after playing so our playtest video, below, involves a house rule), and some point values could be… odd. (Why is the Chemist worth -4? I mean, I get why it has bad synergy with Drug Lord, but did someone just get burned by a Chem test in high school?)
A disruption to this is Action cards. These cards can force Refugees from their current country, alter their point total, or even outright kill them unless another Action card counteracts it. While playtesting, we had a Refugee get fully Vetted and ready to be admitted who was worth 13 points (Vetting cards were Compassionate, Nurse, and First Aid Kit); an Action card (“Alternative Facts”) inverted the point totals, and then the person who would have benefitted played another Action card that let him send his Refugee to the player who had inverted it, netting them -13 points.
Not According to Plan
Action cards introduce a lot of uncertainty; they come up somewhat rarely because of the way that die rolls work at the start of a turn, and I liked that they weren’t prevalent – they were a shot in the arm every now and then to steer the game in another direction. Another of my group would have preferred them to appear more, to foster more chaos into the mix; this is a matter of preference and my personal opinion is that the designers got a pretty good balance of it. That, coupled with how Vetting cards are rolled and played (including being able to play on Refugees in other players’ countries), made for a good, smooth mechanic that moves at a good pace.
I mentioned earlier that we houseruled how country of origin bonuses worked; there simply is not a great instruction set yet. There are rules online but they are poorly organized. I expect that this will be cleared up before release, but if I had to pick any one thing that I want the designer to make sure they elaborate on, it’s this: what is the Fleeing Zone? It’s a zone in the center of the table that fleeing refugees go to; are they “on the way” to another country and arrive after all Action cards have been dealt with? That’s what we did. Another option seemed to be that refugees who flee go there (if not specified to go elsewhere) and, instead of drawing a fresh Refugee at the start of a turn, they could be grabbed from the Zone. I don’t know and the present rules say nothing of it – I expect it to be addressed in the final version of the game but it is an issue we faced.
Finally, I think that the game is a bit… off-message. It appears to be written with a socially liberal point of view. Cards like Fake News and Alternative Facts are used satirically, while the Egotistical Disposition Vetting card is a question mark with a Trump wig. And yet, the game’s scores skew more negative than positive. We played two games, the second of which is in the video included below. We played a shortened game, so it might have turned out a bit different, but it’s very important to note that (SPOILER ALERT) the winning player ended up being the one who accepted no Refugees into their country at all. They won the game with 0 points scored, while everyone else ended up getting stuck with Refugees who were worth negative point values after their Vetting cards were all said and done. Our other game wasn’t as bad; with a score spread of 10, 1, -2 and -9, it still averaged out to zero. That’s not great; the result of the winner not accepting anyone though is… problematic, to say the least.
In one particular case, one of my Refugees got an extreme negative score after an opponent played about -7 of Vetting cards on it. Until someone else played an Action card that let me send them somewhere else, I considered using an Outbreak Action card on them to kill them – a refugee trying to get into my own country – rather than taking on the score. That’s a crazy disconnect if you try to match it against the theme of the game and the idea that you should try to empathize with people. Between the nature of how Action cards work to try to force undesirable Refugees onto other players, and the Vetting cards seeming to be evenly spread between positive and negative values, the game mechanics reinforce a socially conservative view – that refugees are bad and should not be let into the country. It’s not worth the risk.
I don’t think that’s what the designer of the game wants. I know that’s certainly not what I want out of a game like this. If you’re going to use a game as a social allegory, you had better make sure that:
- The game mechanics are fun to play. (They are.)
- The game mechanics reinforce the allegory you are trying to draw. (They don’t.)
Considering the game has been tested a number of times before, I wonder if these results are outliers; our two games, or even my group’s playstyle in general. Still, stepping back, I don’t see how the system can result in more positive points than negative. If it’s an edge case, it’s still worth looking at; if it’s normal behavior, it needs revisiting.
#refugee is a fun game with solid mechanics; when it releases I expect rule issues to be cleared up and gameplay to run smoothly. But some tweaking needs to be done to point values and some of the individual cards themselves to help the game stay on-message. Tweak it so positive scores are more common than negative, while keeping all other mechanics intact; move the bell curve of possible Refugee scores up, and I think it will finally be what the designer wanted it to be – and I, in the end, would feel a little less dirty while playing it.
Typically, when I score a game, I give it some whimsical maximum score, depending on the circumstances of the game. (Mad Max’s “7.5 out of V8” comes to mind.) But since this game is still in pre-release, and I feel it’s important to give a clear opinion of the game in its current form and what its potential could be, I’ll score it out of ten.
Current Score: 6/10. Good solid mechanics, but rules need clarification and generally need to be conveyed in a much smoother manner. Needs Vetting scores to skew more positive if you’re trying to convey that people have any sort of good qualities to them, and some of the flavor text is… unfortunate.
Potential Score: 9/10. Get these issues cleaned up and I think this game has great promise. I personally still feel a bit icky from the disconnect. On the one hand I have the lives of people in my hands; on the other hand I’m playing a fun game with friends and trying to hurt the other players to get ahead. It’s a rough mindset to try to reconcile but in the end I still enjoyed myself.
#refugees can be found on Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/forstle/refugee-card-game-0
Price: $35 (lowest non-early bird Kickstarter tier with copy of game)
Designer: Thomas Mon
Interested in watching how a game of #refugee plays out? We played a shortened game, available for you to watch here.