Politics is a game to Alfred Twu. Actually several. Twu designs board games around sensitive political issues like the California water crisis, high-speed rail, and the Bay Area’s housing crisis through games like “Bay Area Regional Planner.”
Twu enjoys re-imaginings of California generally and the Bay Area specifically and views the projects as creative explorations of important questions. Such as, what if instead of putting increased pressure on the Bay Area’s existing housing stock, companies like Apple housed their own employees? More recently, Twu posited a way to repurpose de-commissioned BART cars into housing, or ‘aBARTments’ as he calls them.
In 2018, Twu ran for Berkeley City Council in District 8 on a platform of creating new housing while expanding protection for renters. The designer has a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and works full-time for San Francisco’s MWA Architects. Politically oriented board games are a side hobby — a way, Twu says, “to give people a sense of the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution.”
“There’s definitely been an emerging movement for games that have some kind of educational or political message,” said Twu. “For people who are less familiar with political issues they can kind of serve as an introduction.”
Most of Twu’s board games have a state or regional focus, but the hyperlocal board game “North Berkeley” was conceived from local conversations about the fate of a neighborhood parking lot, a dispute that has proven so contentious it has even garnered national attention for the issues it has highlighted about California real estate and community engagement.
Here’s how “North Berkeley” works: each player assumes the role of advocate for different and sometimes conflicting constituencies. Players draw cards printed with the concerns of different neighborhood groups, such as commuters who want to preserve parking, young families looking for housing, and longtime residents concerned about property values. Players earn points by fulfilling a constituency’s interests. For example, a card labeled ‘Tech Corporations’ stipulates that a player earns points by getting 20 new housing units on the board, while a card labeled ‘Stop the Shadows’ requires the player assure no new towers or mid-rises in the board’s two blocks next to Virginia Street. Players can also lose points by failing to protect their constituencies’ interests.
Twu deliberately designs all of the games to be playable within a one-hour time frame, “short enough that you can do it as part of a community workshop.”
Four members of East Bay Young Democrats gathered to play a round of “North Berkeley” after a recent group meeting. James Chang, Ruben Hernandez Story, Allison Grady and Twu settled in and drew cards. Grady sighed in exasperation.
“Oh no,” said Chang, looking over. “Do you have conflicting interests?”
“Yeah, a little bit,” said Grady. “It’s workable if everyone cooperates.”
Aside from geo-specificity, cooperation is what sets Twu’s games apart. It might be tempting to describe “North Berkeley” as a kind of hyperlocal Monopoly, if that particular game allowed for spirited debate, negotiation and compromise. But the similarities are largely superficial. While many board games are predicated on a winner-take-all system of gamesmanship, in Twu’s North Berkeley, it’s only winner-take-some.
The goal of “North Berkeley” is not to finish and divide players into winners and losers, nor for players to see their own interests as mutually exclusive. That said, Twu does acknowledge that each game does contain at least a few incompatible objectives, just like the different interest groups of the real North Berkeley. Players of Twu’s game may come to loggerheads when a city council’s goal of broadening the tax base by building more housing comes up against a determined neighborhood association that wants a vacant space to become a park.
Twu isn’t trying to convince anyone of their own convictions, or that more housing is necessarily the best outcome for a game. “The best solutions involve a mix of strategies. Often, there is no one way to win.”
Having looked over their constituencies, strategized and discussed, it was time for the four to consider some policies. Hernandez Story drew a policy card and flipped it over: Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). Adoption would allow the neighborhood to expand its stock of existing housing without heavy construction or high-rises.
“I’m OK with ADUs,” said Grady. “Do those count as new housing?” They did, but did not count towards points. They would, however, speed up the amount of available housing much sooner than approving a high-rise.
Chang considered before replying and put his finger on the board. “Can we put low-income housing next to the rich folk?” he said. “Actually no, I don’t think they’d allow that.”
“You mean in the game or in life?”
“Can we put low-income housing next to the rich folk?… Actually no, I don’t think they’d allow that.” — James Chang
Chang is a resident of North Berkeley and a member of the Berkeley Rent Stabilization Board.
“That’s why people like ADUs,” said Grady. “You can control who moves into your neighborhood.”
The four voted on whether or not to approve ADUs. The vote passed 3 to 1. In exchange, Chang offered to approve more high-rise housing.
“I’m willing to compromise on more luxury units here,” he said, putting a finger to a corner of the board. Though the offer came with the condition fellow players don’t put high-rises elsewhere.
“Why do you care?” asked Grady, gesturing to the empty squares.
“I care about my neighborhood’s character.”
“How about mid-rises?” offered Twu.
“I’m down for mid-rises.”
A tile representing mid-rise towers went on the board.
The players then filled the agreed upon squares with the remainder of housing options and then peopled the board with little figures representing different income brackets. Low-income residents were red, middle-income yellow, high-income white.
“Did you have to make the rich people white?” asked Chang.
“It may have been an intentional design,” Twu joked.
“But look! We housed everyone!” said Grady. They had. Not a single one of the various figures — high, middle, or low income — had been left unhoused. They had collectively succeeded in under 30 minutes. “We did better than Berkeley City Council!”
That may be true in this fictional version of North Berkeley. The four had won a board game. They had populated a 9 by 9 -inch square piece of cardboard with little figurines. But that observation does not diminish the value of a game like “North Berkeley” (which, like all of Twu’s games, is available at Games of Berkeley as well as from Twu’s California Rail Map website).
“It’s a good tool for someone who is not politically minded to understand the nuances of the stories,” said Hernandez Story. “To take some of the conversations that are going on behind closed doors and to get them out from behind those doors.” Out where the average person could see them, understand them, discuss them without needing to sit on the City Council.
Chang thinks the game’s usefulness also works in reverse. “I want to get this game in front of Berkeley City Council and have them play it,” he said.
The point is not to arrive at a perfect and transferable solution — to move a strategy from the game “North Berkeley” onto the neighborhood of North Berkeley — but to better understand and better identify the concerns of some very specific constituencies to a very specific debate. It’s more constructive, according to Twu — and much less contentious — to foster important discussions over board games beforehand than via litigation after.
As the game designer puts it: “The value is really for people to understand the other points of views. There’s no better way to do it than to actually be given that role.”