California Water Crisis: A Board Game That Explores the Politics of Water

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Cover of California Water Crisis. The Board Game’s cover was inspired by California Water Agency logos, which are typically promotional booster images. His image offers a dystopian take.

What would you do about the drought if you were Jerry Brown? A new 2-3 player board game by Bay Area-based graphic designer Alfred Twu allows you to play the politics of water in California.

Twu specializes in designing games that try and have fun with complex issues. Currently, he is developing one called “California Housing Crisis” that deals with San Francisco’s runaway housing costs, and he previously designed a fantasy map for a U.S. national high speed rail system that went viral.

California Water Crisis is optimized for three players, and each person plays one of three California regions: Southern California, Northern California and the Central Valley. Each player starts off with a different number of cities and farms and also different amounts of money. Twu designed the game so that Northern California starts off in the best position and the Central Valley in the worst. (See detailed rules and objectives here.)

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Caroline Chamberlain, right, and Andrew Gomez play at solving California’s Water Crisis

The goal of the game is for the competing bosses/players not to cure California of the drought but to achieve the highest approval rating.

A player achieves a higher approval rating by spending money on social services or cutting taxes for his/her constituents. He or she doesn’t achieve a higher approval rating by providing their cities and farms with water–but one’s approval rating goes down if water isn’t provided to a city or farm.

Taken in aggregate, these facets of the game were designed to show that even during a prolonged drought, as in California, resolving an environmental crisis is complicated and other factors still come into play. In addition, it’s designed to illustrate that people only take notice when water doesn’t arrive as planned.

While in the instructions the game says it takes about 10 minutes to learn how to play, it took my boyfriend Andrew Gomez and I about an hour to figure out exactly how it worked. Once we did figure it out, it was a lot of fun and elucidated some realities about the situation with California’s water very well: specifically that of groundwater. As the game continues, groundwater becomes more and more expensive to pump, and you can never refill it.

Andrew played as Northern California, and I played as Southern California, and we took turns making decisions for the Central Valley (which is how you play when you only have two players). Andrew won, and he attributes his victory to one of Northern California’s key advantages. Northern California is the only region that gets a higher approval rating from allocating water to ecosystems throughout California. (This is designed to demonstrate that Northern California is more concerned with the environment than Southern California and the Central Valley.)

I’d recommend this game to board game fans, especially from California.  If you want to play it, you can buy it from The Game Crafter. Listen up for a segment on California Water Crisis, that will air on DnA on June 23, 2015 at 2:30 PM.