Monopoly is one of the best-known board games of all time. It pits players against each other with the goal of dominating real estate markets through a series of land grabs, jacking up rents and hotel fees, and being a generally nasty human being.
Now, though, there’s a new board game that’s turning that premise on its head, challenging players to work together to solve a housing crisis. And, in a doubly ironic twist, it’s focusing on an urban area known for shunning low-tech board games in favour of start-ups and apps: San Francisco.
The choice of location is certainly apt. San Francisco’s housing crunch is one of the most acute anywhere in the world, rivalling other global cities like London and New York.
Housing horror stories abound. The city’s landlords make use of California’s Ellis Act, which allows landlords to remove tenants and go out of business, to evict low income tenants with ruthless efficiency. Single room occupant housing – an affordable place to stay for lower income San Franciscans – is closing all around town. Some landlords have exploited rent control loopholes to raise rents by as much as $6000 within a span of a few months.
And the proliferation of tech companies in the city has led to a plethora of tone-deaf computerised solutions to the city’s rent woes. An app launched to combat homelessness has made little headway, and has been criticised as simply a way to “snitch” the location of the homeless. And last year, AirBnB took it upon itself to launch a snarky ad campaign criticising the city government for wasting its tax money, in hopes that loosening restrictions for them would somehow lower housing costs for locals.
Game designer Alfred Twu had a different idea. Instead of looking for a high-tech solution to the solution, he would try a less technological, if equally unorthodox, solution: a board game.
Like monopoly, only backwards. Image: Alfred Twu.
Twu has already built something of a name for himself as a designer of board games tackling somewhat wonky subject matter, releasing games such as “California Water Crisis” and “The US High Speed Rail Game”. But in late 2015, he decided to set his sights on the housing crisis that, as a resident of nearby Berkeley, hit close to home for him.
On 6 December, Twu launched a Kickstarter campaign for his new game, “Bay Area Regional Planner”. The campaign immediately began drawing favourable media coverage, getting picked up by both Curbed San Francisco, and then by Citylab the following day. This attention helped make his campaign a success, far surpassing his initial goal of $500, for a total of $18,361 by the end of December.
Given the game’s subject matter, it’s no surprise to find its objective framed in unconventional terms. Instead of being asked to plop costly houses and hotels on top of colourful tiles and nab “get out of jail free” cards, their goal is to “Get ready to compromise and make coalitions!”
The game, which is now in production, can be played by 2 to 12 players, and takes roughly 60-90 minutes to play through. Played on a board formed into a large grid resembling the Bay Area, it asks players to work together to up-zone various squares on the grid, representing Bay Area cities, to provide housing to meet the demand from 2m hypothetical new residents.
Though housing is the main goal, players also have to worry about other goals, including traffic and historical preservation. They will also have to deal with the overall economy; turns begin by drawing economy cards (including “recession”, “boom”, and “bubble”) that may constrain zoning options.
On the game’s Kickstarter page, Twu details the planning principles that went into the game’s creation. He lays out the connections between zoning for greater density and increased traffic congestion (while also offering a hypothetical transit map of a densified San Jose), as well as a discussion of the effects of retail space on housing costs. He also talks about how his own experiences at planning meetings fed into the creation of the game.
Will the game make a difference? Critics point out that, at the end of the day, it may be no more effective than the apps that have drawn fire from activists. And its steep price tag of $44.99 might be offputting to those Bay Area residents, struggling to get by, who would benefit the most from more housing options.
Despite these drawbacks, however, the game may serve to bolster one element often glossed over by apps and AirBnB ads: collaboration, something sorely lacking in Bay Area regional planning.
Many of the area’s current housing woes are due in no small part to the rampant NIMBYism that runs the length of the San Francisco Bay. Though residents are proud to point out that this once had positive effects – San Francisco’s property owners banded together back in the 1960s to defeat freeway plans that would have plowed through the city’s neighborhoods – today it is a major obstacle to desperately needed new housing. All too often, existing property owners stand in the way of new building, fearing its negative effects while conveniently increasing the value of their own homes at the same time.
To put it in board game terms, many in the area still see housing as a game of Monopoly. Perhaps a few rounds of Bay Area Regional Planner might help to change their minds.
This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.