Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is perhaps the most compelling piece of dystopian fiction I have read—his vision of a future 500 years from now is not that different than our current age of incessant media consumption. While the last year of political discourse in America has elicited a new wave of Orwellian fears, the truth is that most of us don’t care. We are too busy updating Instagram, watching snaps, and swiping left or right on Tinder to be too bothered with the battle for truth and justice being waged in our midst. Neil Postman in his seminal book Amusing ourselves to Death said:
… in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. . . . Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.
In Stonemaier Games’s Euphoria, a game by Jamey Stagmaier and Alan Stone, your goal is to wrest control away from your oppressors in a dystopian future. As the game’s description points out, “your path to victory is paved with the sweat of your workers.” Success requires balancing your workers’ morale and intelligence as you use them to increase your holdings on the world and spread your influence. In one of the most clever mechanics I have seen in a worker placement game, you must constantly strive to keep your workers dumb and happy.In one of the most clever mechanics I have seen in a worker placement game, you must constantly strive to keep your workers dumb and happy.
The game has four factions, each of which you can work with in order to accomplish the game’s goal of placing all ten of your authority tokens. Three of the four factions essentially operate the same way—each has a commodity area where you can place workers to produce resources, markets you can build by spending resources, and artifact markets where you can spend collected artifacts to increase your authority. The Icarite faction is slightly different in that they already possess markets that trade primarily in “bliss,” a drug similar to soma, the pleasure drug in Huxley’s dystopia. As I have played, I often find myself assigning workers to collect an ample supply of bliss—doing so keeps them from pondering too deeply about the meaning of their existence so that they continue resourcing me in my rise to power.
Each player begins the game with two recruits with special abilities, one who is already devoted to your cause and another you have to win over by giving him just enough to make him happy. Players will also build markets that impose harsh restrictions on other players. At every stage, however, you must watch your workers’ intelligence level: if one of them gets too smart, they will literally abandon you.
Euphoria is a worker placement game that is constantly tempting you to exploit your workers for the sake of progress. Thankfully, however, the game does not stop there. It also constantly yet subtly reminds us that we are terrible people with a penchant for exploiting others to get ahead. It does this through ethical dilemmas, asking you to consider whether your will pay your workers or save precious resources, and constantly forcing you to check that your workers haven’t gotten too smart. In other words, it’s the rare worker placement game that not only acknowledges our present dystopia but gives us an opportunity to consider our own input in the system and the temptation we all face to exploit the happiness of others.
So, how is it?
Euphoria is one of the easiest and fastest paced worker placement games I’ve played. Turns are quick and simple yet increasingly impactful as players advance toward the finish line. Euphoria is the rare game that manages to be really compelling and fun while still saying something worthwhile about economics and work.