Games for Change, the leading voice for video games that promote positive social change, spent the last few years just like the rest of us — getting way into board games and tabletop RPGs. The nonprofit marks its 20th anniversary this July, and to celebrate, it will give out the inaugural Best Board or Tabletop Game for Impact award at its marquee Games for Change Festival in New York City. Polygon is pleased to announce the four finalists alongside an interview with the organization’s president, Susanna Pollack.

While Games for Change has long championed serious games across multiple platforms — including mobile, console, and even virtual reality devices — Pollack said that the drive to engage properly with tabletop experiences is the result of a grassroots effort.

“There was so much community demand for this,” Pollack said. “We felt that at this time we wanted to celebrate that. And there were just so many exciting projects coming in, and Kickstarter has been giving a life to so many amazing ideas, and it was coming in so many directions that we said this is the year that we want to acknowledge it and start really building the community within Games for Change to embrace this culture and this type of game experience.”

Another major driving factor, she said, was the work of its major financial partners — including tabletop giant Hasbro, which publishes many different board games as well as Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: The Gathering.

“They’ve [been] becoming more involved in our community,” Pollack said, including the Rhode Island-based gaming giant alongside partner organizations like Niantic (Pokémon Go), Epic Games (Fortnite), and Riot Games (League of Legends). “They’re seeing the potential of, in their sense, big brands and big games having the opportunity to drive impact. And so they started becoming part of our youth programming. […] So having [this demand for recognition] come from different directions really made us feel like that was the moment.”

The nominees for the inaugural 2023 Best Board or Tabletop Game for Impact, with descriptions provided by Games for Change, are:

Solarpunk Futuresby Solarpunk Surf Club, United States

Cards from Solarpunk Futures are square, and fit into a small box. Classes include teacher, elder, coordinator, grower, builder, healer, hacker, and engineer. Image: Solarpunk Surf Club

“An artist’s game for collaborative utopian visioning, working in (and against) the conventions of tabletop role-playing, whereby players use backcasting and modified consensus to collectively ‘remember’ the stories of how their ancestors built a social-ecological utopia.”

Shasn: Azadiby Abhishek Lamba and Zain Memon, India

A series of interconnected tiles filled with wooden rondels, some with screenprinted designs and some without. Photo: Abhishek Lamba and Zain Memon

A semi-cooperative political strategy board game where players play as revolutionaries, trying to free their country from the grips of tyrannical imperial power. If they succeed, only one will emerge as the leader of the new nation.”

El Viaje de las y los Guardianes(Journey of the Guardians) by Creatura Estudio, Columbia

Components for Journey of the Guardiancs include colorful, cartoon-illustrated cards as well as cardboard tokens and a sand timer. They are all presented on a plain blue background. Image: Creatura Estudio

“A children’s board game about exercising empathy through play to bridge differences among students from different backgrounds. Through carefully constructed challenges, students reflect on their own cultural experiences.”

#ForYou: A Game About Algorithms by MediaSmarts, Canada

Three cards backs from #For You include cards listed as algorithms, data, and audience. Image: MediaSmarts

“A card-based pattern-matching game that helps youth aged 13 to 18 understand the role that algorithms play in their online and offline lives and the value of their personal information to companies that use those algorithms.”

In addition to the awards ceremony, which takes place on July 19 at 7 p.m. EDT, Games for Change will also convene a formal discussion at the United Nations where industry leaders will consider the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

“Sustainability seems to cover a very broad spectrum of issues,” Pollack said. “It involves economic development, it involves peace and security, equity and diversity, and of course climate and the environment.

“We expect to have over a dozen U.N. agencies in the same room with the game industry: AAA studios from Xbox to EA, to companies like YouTube Gaming, and we have DrLupo coming from the streamer community [as well]. We really want to both show the UN and the not-for-profit sector that supports the Sustainable Development Goals all the possibilities that can be made real using games in so many different contexts, and [at] the same time inform the games industry about the needs that the U.N. and others have and how we can help forge those relationships and collaborations.”

The Games for Change festival runs from July 18 through 20, and portions will be livestreamed. Tickets are also available for those who would like to attend in person. Additionally, these four tabletop games will also be made available alongside the organization’s arcade of more than 275 titles on its website.

“I hope this is the beginning of a lot more interest from the tabletop and board game community to participate in next year’s awards,” Pollack said. Submissions for the 2024 awards are expected to open in November or December, but she also hinted at additional opportunities in tabletop game design in the short term.

“We’ve run a game design program for the past nine years in the U.S.,” Pollack added. “It’s a very successful program with middle and high school students, and we want to expand that into tabletop games as well.”

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