Here’s an interesting post about a tabletop game, Train, that explores some of the complicity issues we talk about in regard to Rameses and (especially) Rendition. I share some of the reservations of the post’s author: is a game whose chief gimmick is to make you not want to play really a game? How much depth can be wrung out of such a construction?

But I find it really interesting to see this same idea being played out in the realm of the physical board game, even if it is (as in this case) a single-edition Art board game that will never be widely distributed.

(Edited to add: the linked page has a chat app in the sidebar that seems to crash Firefox for some people. Sorry about that. Safari appears to view it safely.)

15 thoughts on “Train”

  1. Eh. If I understand the game properly, the experience is more one of involuntary complicity. Up until the destination cards are flipped over, to reveal “Auschwitz,” etc., you could have been evacuating people from the site of a nuclear strike, or so on. It’s a sucker punch.

    The abuser-victim mentality seeks to propagate. People who are victimized turn around and victimize others, often for “educational” purposes. That’s what’s happening here. There’s only one copy of the game so that nobody else can turn around and start “educating” people: it allows the game designer to monopolize the abuser role.

    Use of the Nazi typewriter makes clear she’s fetishizing them, and seeking to step into that role personally.


  2. One thing I find odd about the review is that the reviewer makes so much of Train’s underspecified rule system. It seems to me that there’s nothing inherently un-gamelike about having rules that deliberately leave some things for the players to discuss and decide; on the contrary, if it’s done well, I think it could add a great deal to the interest and replayability of a game. I say this purely in the abstract, since I don’t know what the rules of Train are, and also because it sounds as if it’s not very replayable for completely separate reasons–which is precisely why I find the reviewer’s emphasis on this aspect of it so odd.

    I think the questions that you focus on (“Is a game whose chief gimmick is to make you not want to play really a game? How much depth can be wrung out of such a construction?”) are more interesting ones to ask about Train. There are works of tragedy in other art forms that manage to do what they do without making the audience want to quit in disgust–there are certainly tragic plays and operas that I would want to see more than once, and tragic novels that hold up well under re-reading. So it ought to be possible to create a tragic game that provokes an emotional response more along the lines of Aristotle’s fear and pity rather than one of revulsion.

    If Conrad is right in saying that Train dupes people into involuntary complicity, then that seems like a rather cheap trick, and unworthy of the subject matter, though I’m not sure I would go quite so far as to say that Train is abusive.

  3. The problem with that article is that Sirlin apparently hasn’t played Train; he’s just going on what he’s heard about it. (To be fair, so am I.) Ian Bogost’s article “Gestures as Meaning” is an interesting counterpoint to Sirlin’s, and it also corrects some of Sirlin’s misconceptions about the game – in particular, that the typewriter was only used to create the game.

    There are opportunities for observant players to guess the theme before turning over one of the destination cards: the broken glass, the typewriter, the wording of the rules… In this interview with Brenda Brathwaite, Train’s designer, she talks about players who figure it out before or while playing, and how they often start trying to save as many pawns as possible, instead of delivering them. And the rules apparently allow the game to be played this way. Train doesn’t depend on a shock conclusion.

    The interesting thing about Train and complicity, I think, is that it doesn’t just say to the player, “You’re doing horrible things! Shouldn’t you stop playing now?” It also asks questions about ignorance – “Should you have realised what you were doing earlier?” – and agency – “Do you have to accept the system, or can you subvert it?”

  4. Interesting.

    I have made a game with involuntary complicity, where many only understand what they are doing as it is slowly revealed to them. I have also written a game whose chief gimmick is making you not want to play. (To keep this post spoiler-free, I won’t name them. One is a work of IF, the other an RPG.)

    But they are not the same game.

    The danger with bringing them together is that the player’s might become the designer’s victims. I don’t think anyone felt victimised by that piece of IF of mine, since it doesn’t scream “Sucker!” at the end, but allows the player to express herself and invites her to replay it. And the RPG cannot victimise people because they are fully aware of what they are doing (although they may not be fully aware of what kind of play experience it will add up to). But if you add the two ingredients together–hiding complicity and making a game that is not meant to be played–well, things become dangerous.

    However, the Ian Bogost article is very revealing; certainly a necessary addition to the one originally linked by Emily. The broken glass; the nazi typewriter that is actually physically there and from which you have to take the rules… all of that certainly signals to the players that _something abnormal is going on_. You know you are making yourself part of an art experiment, and this severly reduces the risk of victimisation.

    As Bogost describes it, it seems to be an interesting experiment, especially where the physical elements of gameplay are concerned. This, in fact, interests me far more and seems to be (at least to Bogost) a more important part of the game design than the somewhat facile gimmick “You are actually a nazi!”.

    I wouldn’t have minded playing the game, although I’m afraid that I would have guessed what the game was about within a minute. ;)

    I am a bit surprised about the original poster’s and Conrad’s negative appraisal of the fact that the rules are not publicly available. Would you want a holocaust simulator to become a mass market commodity? If not… what is stopping you from building one of these games yourself? I’m sure the point is not in the exact nature of the rules any more than it is in the exact length of the train tracks or the exact pattern of the broken glass.

  5. Victor, to be clear, neither of those is referring to the game I tested, is it? Because (as you know) I kind of had both those reactions at once to it.

  6. Conrad–there could be a lot of reasons, including the idea that the game cannot work without the physical artefacts and it would thus be worse than useless to publish the rules. (Please do read Bogost’s article if you haven’t already.) But the whole question–WHY does the author do this–seems to me of very limited interest. We’re talking about the game: the author’s actions can be a part of that, but the author’s intentions cannot. For all I know, you are right in believing she is getting a kick out of victimising people, but that seems to me irrelevant to an assessment of the game.

    Matt–no, neither is referring to the game you tested. (I still haven’t decided what to do with that. Keep it on my HD or release it with a “this game fails for a somewhat interesting reason which I’ll explain to you”-message attached to it.)

  7. “We’re talking about the game: the author’s actions can be a part of that, but the author’s intentions cannot…”

    I’d say the distinction between actions and intentions is an artificial one; outside of telepathy, one has no means of knowing another’s intentions except through consideration of their behaviors. And further a game designers’ intentions in designing a game are simply the ideal effects of the game; they are the game’s goal.

    –This probably isn’t the place to pursue a debate on that topic, but, to my way of thinking, if the creator of any work is going for a certain emotional response, then a discussion of that ought to be fair game.

    I’m working on the other links, BTW.

  8. I remember seeing Train a while ago (a GDC or something)? It’s not really a game so much as an interactive art project whose effectiveness hinges on players’ expectations of something called “a game”. Once you know what it’s truly about, it’s spoiled, so there’s no reason to play. The rules don’t produce effective gameplay, and they aren’t the point anyway.

  9. All this talk of “is it a game?” is silly, and ironically reminiscent of the “is it art?” question that keeps cropping up with regard to video games. Of course it’s a game — it has all the requisite characteristics — whether or not it’s the kind of game you like is another matter.

  10. It’s definitely not ludus, since there seems to be no way to win or lose it, but it might be a borderline paidia, if there are rules involved. Then again, if its primary purpose is not fun, it fails as a game to me, personally.

    But there are varied definitions of what is a game, therefore I think there may be no answer to that question that will satisfy everyone in this discussion. However, it is an interactive artwork that carries a subtle and effective message, and I applaud it for that.

    Probably another game that falls into the same dilemma would be Petri Purho’s “4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness” ( – another of a new wave of intriguing art games. :)

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