“Rising Tides” — Making a Board Game About Climate Change

During a 48 hour hackathon, we made a water-based board game to teach people about climate change and the Green New Deal. Here’s what we did, how we did it, and what the process was like. But first, here’s a trailer for the game that we literally made in the last 30 min of the hackathon:

On paper, hackathons and game jams might sound like a bad idea. Making the choice to give up your weekend to sit in the middle of a crowded room eating bad food and working long hours seems representative of the “crunch industry” that we rightfully shame companies for. So when Jesse and I heard about the Games for Our Future game jam, our intrigue was tempered by hesitation.

Despite our issues with hackathons, this game jam had a noble goal at its core. In 48 hours, participants were challenged to create a game teaching people about an aspect of climate change, and about how people could work together to mitigate it using initiatives like those in the Green New Deal. This deeply resonated with us; after all, using games to mix together fun and social change was the Just Us Games way.

Daniel Rother, one of the lead organizers for the game jam, during the opening speeches

Still, we were daunted by the idea of making a video game in 48 hours, especially when you account for the time lost when everything inevitably goes wrong. We had tried to make a video game in about a year (or 8760 hours) and still felt like we didn’t do enough, so how could we do one we were proud of in 48?

Instead, Jesse and I began thinking about board games, not video games. The game jam wasn’t explicitly against tabletop games, but all of the messaging around the event and submission process centered around video games. So we were excited about being a little contrarian. And best of all, we could actually conceptualize producing, iterating, and playtesting one in our short period of time.

Inspired by indie board games that challenged conventions and innovated on what a board game could be (i.e. our friend Jen Sandercock’s Edible Board Games), we racked our brains to think of how to make an impactful board game about climate change. That’s when Jesse came up with one idea that sparked a flame in both of us.

A water-based board game. Immediately our minds shot to kids and parents getting together to play “that fun water game”, all the while subconsciously learning the harsh truths about climate change.

While they laughed and gasped at Miami, New Orleans, and Atlanta sinking under the water, maybe they would internalize the real threat these places are under, and use those feelings to be more active towards a resolution.

At the start of the jam, all participants were treated to a collection of inspiring 10-minute talks by leading researchers in climate change from the University of Washington. Throughout the hour, they talked about the reality of climate change, about food systems and other overlooked high carbon footprint industries, about how communing with nature breeds empathy towards the planet and activism against climate change, and (the most impactful for us) how the Green New Deal is not a battle for individuals in a vacuum, but a battle for all collective citizens, politicians and organizations of the country.

I spy with my little eye…a pair of indie game devs looking pensive

We ended the talks by watching The Intercept’s “A Message From the Future”, narrated by the phenomenal Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I admit seeing the video floating around social media, but never actually taking the time to watch it. For those of you who haven’t seen it, don’t make the same mistake. Watch the video below:

After so much inspiration, it was time to let us loose so we could make the dang thing! We were fortunate enough to draw others into our project, and by the end of the night we had four new members to the team: Mike and his daughter Laura, and Kira and her daughter Zoey. Out of the 70 or so attendees, consisting of students, professionals, and hobbyists, we had some of the youngest members, and we were also 2/3rds women!

Look at this lovely crew! From left to right: Kira, Laura, Zoey, Sonia, Jesse and Mike

So how do you make a water-based board game in 48 hours, and how do you make it educational and not just a gimmick? The premise of the game was simple: climate change is a reality, and you and your fellow players need to work together to survive and pass Green New Deal initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change. Every turn, the game bin gets filled with an additional 1–2 cups of water. If you’re stuck underwater you die. If any player dies, it’s game over.

We knew we wanted the game to be centered around the United States, because climate change so often seems like a distant problem, both in time and location, and by framing the game in the U.S. we could bring these concepts closer to home.

Real cities with representative elevations — players literally start the game by building up the United States

When we started the game jam, I put on my Maker hat and tried to think about all the constraints of making a game with water as its main component. Everything we used for pieces had to be waterproof, fairly lightweight, and easy to set up. Having a map of the U.S. immediately made me think of creating different “sectors”, rising and falling in elevation that was relatively accurate to the real U.S. topography.

We were lucky enough to have access to a CNC Mill at the Pacific Science Center’s Tinker Tank. I used 2-inch wide hexes as the basis for these sectors on our map, and got to cutting. When we had all of our sector tiles, we used a system of washers and magnets to keep them affixed even in a tub filling with water, and we used a series of “riser tiles” to increase the elevation of certain sectors. Waterproofing the paper components was easy enough by laminating them, and with that, the physical component of our game was all set.

The other piece to tackle was the writing and theme, something that needed intense care in order to succeed in our mission of education, empathy and activism.

As most people know, climate change leads to rising temperatures, ice caps melting, and sea levels rising. Climate change also causes areas to get less rainfall because of increased heat, resulting in droughts and fires. Some areas experience more typhoon and hurricane activity. Not only that, but changes in the environment causes changes in food production, which leads to food shortages, increased prices and therefore increased poverty…the list goes on.

As areas become hotter and harder to live in, people migrate to areas that are more habitable. This changes the job market and opportunities for wealth, causing even more people to migrate. Migrating people can cause failures in infrastructure, disease and homelessness. So yeah, no matter where you are, climate change will affect you.

Climate change can cause a lot of different problems, and we wanted to capture that reality in “Rising Tides”

So our game was about more than rising sea levels, even if that was our focal selling point.

Once we had players thinking about and understanding the impact of climate change, it was time to get them thinking about what they could do to fight back against this calamity. Cooperation was key: no one can fix climate change alone and at the end of the day a problem that affects everyone needs a solution that involves everyone.

The Green New Deal lays out some ideas on what we can do as a nation to create a better future. In “Rising Tides”, we put the power in the players hands to make these initiatives a reality, and we show them the impact passing these initiatives can have.

The thrill of passing an initiative and turning the card over to reveal an actual greener future was such a fun part of the gameplay. But of course it took work; players had to spend many turns moving around the slowly submerging map, collecting resources and cooperatively trading them to “save up” enough to pass an initiative. Pass three out of five without losing a team member and you win the game!

Game devs hard at work

At the end of the game jam, we had a game that innovated on what a board game could be by adding water into the mix. “Rising Tides” delivered its climate change message in a fun and playful way, and by being a cooperative game it contextualized that fighting climate change is a mission we can only tackle together.

With 48 hours of work under our belt, we were e-x-h-a-u-s-t-e-d. During a hackathon’s “crunch lifestyle”, you often don’t have time to think about your body or your fatigue, because all your energy is spent thinking about the project.

Even still, at the end of it we were immensely proud of what our team had put together. The game was a unique concept we hadn’t seen anywhere else, and most importantly it was so much fun to play! We could see that it made players understand so much more about the Green New Deal because it represented those initiatives so physically. As AOC says in the beginning of The Intercept’s video: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. “Rising Tides” let us actually see climate change, and not in the scary over-the-top “The Day After Tomorrow” kind of way.

Where will “Rising Tides” go from here? We’re not sure to be honest. Producing physical games is expensive, and adding water and waterproof game pieces adds a lot of complexity to the mix. It is unfortunate that education and creative fields are so underfunded; as indie game developers with a passion to create games that teach people about social issues, we have constantly been hit with the reality that lack of money equals an inability to create and market those projects. Even with crowdfunding options, it can be daunting and often insurmountable to make things while also making enough profit to sustain yourself.

So for now, “Rising Tides” will stay in its prototype phase, though we’ll keep an ear to the ground for any funding opportunities that may come our way. In the meantime, feel free to check out the player manual, and feel free to support Just Us Games by giving us a follow on our social media accounts: Twitter | Facebook.

We don’t know what’s in our future, but we’re going to keep doing our best to make this planet a better place. You can help by supporting the Green New Deal, either by donating to organizations like this one, or by calling your representatives and voicing your support. Together we can make our planet greener, more sustainable, and better for us and future generations.

Just Us Games Studio

Just Us Games Studio is a two-person game studio based in Seattle. Here is where they post their blog entries, retrospectives and more about their ongoing projects

Sonia Kandah

Written by

Artist, Designer, Illustrator https://www.soniakandah.com/

Just Us Games Studio

Just Us Games Studio is a two-person game studio based in Seattle. Here is where they post their blog entries, retrospectives and more about their ongoing projects