Sometimes, even the most milquetoast things can cause a stir and get people talking. Other times, a game will come out that will have you scratching your head like, “They must have been trying to create controversy on purpose, right?” Sometimes, you can tell they’re going for cheap edginess and shock value to get attention and the game lacks luster, other times the creators have the best intentions for their game but something goes wrong along the way… Or something goes right, and a game that was designed to get people talking and thinking about a difficult subject does exactly that.
“Controversy” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and a game that makes people feel uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are also different flavors of controversy, and so it’s worth mentioning that we’re not trying to equate different games on this list as having similar degrees of it. Obviously, a game like Monopoly or a game that tackles very sensitive subject matter aren’t controversial in the same ways.
Either way, whether it’s a hugely popular Kickstarter that has trouble finding its footing but ultimately delivers a great game, or even a release that’s going for shock value that has great mechanics behind it that make it unique and worthy of a play, here are some controversial board games that are worth checking out, for one reason or another.
5. Letters from Whitechapel (2011)
Set in a dreary London district in 1888, Letters from Whitechapel takes players into the Jack the Ripper killings of the late 1800s. Although some players might take issue with playing through a tragic event, Whitechapel has actually been considered a great cat-and-mouse style board game.
Players of Whitechapel are split into two groups, one is Jack the Ripper and the other is the policemen trying to catch Jack before he can kill again. The town is populated by “the wretched”, the group of prostitutes that Jack the Ripper aims to murder. As Jack sneaks around the board, it’s the policeman’s job to protect the wretched while trying to find Jack’s exact location and attempt an arrest.
4. Cards Against Humanity (2009)
Cards Against Humanity has been the subject of controversy many times since it’s release in 2009. Originally marketed as a filthy alternative to other fill-in-the-blank games like Apples to Apples, Cards Against Humanity is filled with politically-incorrect cards for players to mismatch.
Here’s how the game works. A black card is drawn and played face up, which has a phrase with a word missing. Then each player chooses one of the white cards in their hand to fill in the blank. Finally a judge picks which joke he likes the best out of the pile. Sort of like a mad-lib for dirty minded adults.
As a game that boasts it self to be “a game for horrible people”, Cards Against Humanity manages avoid controversy by putting the responsibility in the players hands. On their own, most of the cards aren’t inherently offensive. However, when played in certain combinations can lead to some really risky jokes.
Despite all that, some cards were indeed pulled from rotation when they were deemed too offensive, such as “passable transvestite“, “date rape“, and a handful of others.
Aside from the dark humored nature of the game, perhaps CAH’s greatest controversy was reports of sexist and racist behavior at their Chicago offices which lead to the stepping down of co-founder Max Temkin.
3. Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2009)
Freedom: The Underground railroad takes the difficult topic of slavery to the board game table. It’s a co-operative movement game where players re-enact key historical moments in empowering the Abolitionist movement and put an end to slavery in the United States.
Freedom has players working together to balance the freeing of slaves, with fund raising for the Abolitionist movement. As slave traders roam and try to catch runaway slaves, this game’s heavy theme might be too much for some players.
One way that Freedom’s theme becomes more palatable, is that it is a fully co-operative adventure. No matter what happens, players are all working on the same team, with the unified goal of gaining access to Canada while freeing as many slaves as possible.
Some controversy can arise when people argue that board games aren’t the best medium to tackle certain difficult topics, or that turning something into a game to play for fun can trivialize the suffering, and subsequent generational traumas associate with something like slavery. Board games are art and they can also be powerful education tools, and perhaps art is at its best when it’s tackling difficult topics.
2. Monopoly (1933)
Monopoly isn’t a perfect game, in fact many people wouldn’t even call it “good” or “playable”, but many others would list it as their favorite board game if you asked them. It’s okay to play Monopoly, even if it’s not an incredible game. But is it worth playing?
Monopoly is the game you play right before you get to a gateway game. It’s the gateway to the gateway, the little path right before the gate, if you will. Most people you’ll come across will know how to play Monopoly (or at least whatever version of the rules they grew up with). It’s a good way to get people into “better” board games, by starting on common and familiar ground. It’s probably not worth playing Monopoly over and over, but how could we have a list of controversial games and not mention one of the most polarizing games? Also, you didn’t hear it from us but there are some versions of Monopoly that aren’t half bad, even by the standards of a more experienced boardgame player.
1. Brenda Romero’s Train (2009)
Train takes a much different approach to tackling the difficult subjects of World War 2 when compared to another controversial game that touches on the topic, the popular social deduction boardgame Secret Hitler.
We’re all used to opening up a game’s box, grabbing the book, reading the rules – but what happens if those rules were typed on a Nazi typewriter? What happens if the person making the rules isn’t somebody you should obey? What happens if you only find out when it’s too late?
On the surface, Brenda Romero’s Train seems like a fairly straight forward game about transporting passengers by rail. For the first half players race to get more passengers to their destinations than the other players. It’s not until the games twist ending that players realize they’ve been transporting prisoners to Auschwitz. Forcing players to look back at their complicit actions throughout the course of the game.
A large-scale act of devastation takes complicity from many parties. There’s a thought-exercise that explores the fact that if we were living in Germany during the war, many of us would be on the wrong side.
Other Controversial Board Games?
Can you think of any other controversial board games that we should have included, or that you would have added to this list if you were writing it? Why do you think so? Leave a comment and share your opinions, and let us know if you disagree with any of our choices, too. If you see a discussion going, don’t be shy – jump in! Everyone is welcome to share their board game opinions here.