Week 2 ~ Yoté + gentrification

This is Episode 2/10 of the Hacking 10 games in 10 weeks challenge.

After last week’s hack of Barricade/Malefiz I fancied a quick game where chance plays no role. So I picked Yoté, an abstract strategy game from West Africa.

A tribalesque Yoté board. Image by Emmanuel Chauvet

What is this game really about?

According to The 10 Best Games in the World Yoté is over 200 years old and emerged from the Fulani, a traditionally nomadic pastoral people who live across West Africa. I couldn’t find confirmation of this statement online.

The Fulani herd cattle, goats and sheep across the vast dry hinterlands of an area larger in size than the continental United States, keeping somewhat separate from the local agricultural populations. They are the largest nomadic ethnic group in the world.

In Yoté you start from an empty 6x5 board. There are no obstacles or set rules to start occupying it. So at first you take advantage of this and place your pieces anywhere you like, but the board fills up quickly (there are 30 spaces for 24 pieces). After you positioned a piece on the board, you can only move it one step orthogonally. There seems to be a tension between nomadic freedom and limited movement once settled.

Recurrent droughts have meant that a lot of traditional herding families have been forced to give up their nomadic way of life, losing a sense of their identity in the process. Increasing urbanisation has also meant that a lot of traditional Fulani grazing lands have been taken for developmental purposes, or forcefully converted into farmlands. These actions often result in violent attacks and reprisal counterattacks being exchanged between the Fulani, who feel their way of life and survival are being threatened, and other populations who often feel aggrieved from loss of farm produce even if the lands they farm on were initially barren and uncultivated.

Yoté is a game of violent conflict. Your aim is to remove all your opponent’s pieces from the board. Removing as in killing, because once a piece is removed, it can’t re-enter the game. You kill another piece by jumping over it (similar to Draughts, except you don’t move diagonally), and its place remains vacant for at least one turn.

Like in Draughts all pieces are equal, and unlike Draughts they remain equal throughout the game. No promotions or super-powers to be acquired, which seems to suggest a strict social hierarchy (at least between warriors). Like in Draughts, the jump-to-kill mechanic of Yoté encourages you to form blocs, sticking pieces close together to protect each other. If you leave a bloc you become very vulnerable.

There are a couple of interesting and deep twists to that standard killing mechanic, which set Yoté apart from Draughts and other similar games. First, you are not forced to kill another piece, so Draughts-like sacrifice-based tactics make no sense in this game. Then, and this is a peculiar one, for every piece that you kill, you can kill another one of your choice!

The kill-1-get-1-free mechanic creates an experience of precarious existence: nowhere is completely safe. To explain this it may be useful (and hopefully not too much of an interpretative stretch) to look at the moral tenets of pulaaku (Fulaniness). A valued character trait for a good Fulani is munyal, a stoic endurance of the supposedly pre-ordained vicissitudes of life. In Yoté you have to accept that none of your carefully placed pieces are secure, and that a block of pieces you patiently built could crumble if one of them is arbitrarily removed. At the same time, you tend to play with prudence, as one loss can cost you dearly. Killings don’t happen that often, but when they do it’s quite a bloodshed.

In essence, Yoté is an unsettling game of precarious balance and brutal aggression over a bare land.

What will the hacked game be about?

Whilst playing Yoté I couldn’t help but compare the symbolical struggle in the game to contemporary urban class struggles. Maybe it was that sense of freedom and creativity of the early game, followed by the feeling of being stuck in an overcrowded and dangerous place after all pieces took place on the board, which brought one word to mind: gentrification.

Living in London for several years, I have witnessed how people around me are priced-out of their homes or offices. I’m not just a passive observer of gentrification, but I take part in it, rather indirectly, through my consumption habits. And I’m sure that many of my neighbours think of me as a hipster that moved into this street because it’s been re-developed and it’s close to the Tube. I can’t deny that I’m part of the so-called creative class, those first-wave gentrifiers who move into traditionally working-class urban neighbourhoods, and through cultural capital contribute to real estate and rent prices going through the roofs.

Photo by Patrick Dalton (I don’t live far from there)

Gentrification can be explained in pure economic terms with the rent-gap theory: investors come into an area when they can exploit the difference between the current market value and the possible future value of properties in that area. In other words: buy low and sell high. But the rent-gap theory doesn’t explain what makes an area more attractive to urban pioneers, it just models market behaviours in reaction to other factors. People don’t move into an area because it’s a prospective investment: their choices tend to be more complex than an economic model. Individual decisions are influenced and in turn influence the way communities act or react to change the fabrics of a city. It’s messy.

Through the hacked version of the game I want players to:

  • Know how the rent-gap model works (a playable theory)
  • Feel some degree of frustration for the messiness of the gentrification process
  • Think about solutions to mitigate the struggles that gentrification produces in real life

How can I hack Yoté so that it’s about gentrification?

I will try out a couple of ideas.

Experiment 1: property bubbles

Both players are property developers trying to maximise the value and rental income of their investments, whilst avoiding the bursting of property bubbles. Other social actors involved in the gentrification process are non-playing-characters.

Here’s more about this experiment.

Experiment 2: class struggle

Each player represents a different social actor with a different game goal. One player could control the property investors, motivated by financial goals, while the other plays as a the creative class, or a pre-gentrification community.

As you probably worked out, this is work-in-progress stuff. I’ll keep updating this post as I prototype and playtest the ideas above.

Meanwhile, since you made it this far, and assuming this post has sparked some thoughts in your brain, why not add a little comment down below, or give us a clap? Thanks!