With the September 2021 Monthly Update from GMT Games, the next offering in the Irregular Conflicts Series was announced which would really solidify the focus of the series being on conflict and not necessarily war. Cross Bronx Expressway is a game that looks at social issues in New York City, and more specifically the South Bronx, and how those issues and stances formed the world view of the time and effected those that the policies were intended to benefit. I am really interested in this game as I can see so many additional topics that could be given this same treatment to better help us understand our world. I reached out to the designer Non-Breaking Space to get some information on the design, its focus and what we can expect from this groundbreaking title.
Please keep in mind that the materials used in this interview including components, board and cards are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development, details about the game may still change prior to publication.
Grant: First off Non-Breaking Space please tell us about the genesis for your name?
NBS: It’s my ludo nom de guerre. It comes from nbsp1618, nbsp is a Non-Breaking Space, used to prevent lines from breaking. So Non-Breaking Space holds the line.
Grant: Please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
NBS: I use a pseudonym because the work I do benefits from having minimal presence online. As for hobbies, I love hiking, camping and making things with old tools, favorites being an old drill press and a soldering iron. I also love learning about the modern world from my teenagers, because let me tell you if you think you understand the world you’re most certainly wrong.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
NBS: Game design is something I always did for fun. When the kids were younger I would make little games for them. It was a pretty important part of our family life. From that though I started making a list of “serious” games I wanted to make, whenever I got the time. A couple of years before the pandemic, I started setting aside time to design those games which led to the “completion” of a different design. Getting that design to a playable state gave me the confidence to think of myself as a game designer. From that point I started giving all of my ideas some focus, which is how I got Cross Bronx Expressway to where it is now. It’s been a great experience overall, and just builds my excitement for all the other games on the list.
Grant: What designers have influenced your approach to design?
NBS: Hands down the biggest influence on me as a designer is Chad Jensen. There isn’t a single designer that encompasses the modern era of this corner of gaming for me more than Jensen. He infused all of these narrative nuances directly into his models. Even if you reduce the games down to the mechanics, manipulating the board state without intentionally thinking of the context, the actions themselves become gestures which have their own character. Designers like Cole Wehrle, Brian Train, Matt Eklund, Amabel Holland and others continue to push the bounds of what these types of gaming gestures can do. Through them we’re able to arrive at even richer experiences with history through gaming.
I’m also influenced heavily by older designs. My process begins with playing as many earlier games on a topic as possible, because design happens in a context. SPI, Avalon Hill, early GMT games, magazine games. There is such a rich history with such a wealth of knowledge to build from. Understanding what has worked (or not worked) before helps expand the possibilities of what can work now.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
NBS: Probably the biggest challenge is finding the right level of complexity for the story you want the game to tell. This is particularly true when designing games about history, especially so if there’s any level of conflict in that history. All of game design is about abstraction, but if a historical design is too abstract it runs the risk of misrepresenting the history. At the other end of the spectrum, if the design becomes overwrought with complexity, the system itself can become the barrier to users engaging with the history. I like to work at the heavier end of the spectrum, so finding that balance is always important.
If I’m honest I’m not sure what I do really well yet. I know what I am trying to do with my designs but it remains to be seen how successful I am with that. The goal is to drive deeper understanding of the complexities of human history through design, and I aim to do it through topics and perspectives that aren’t always covered in this corner of gaming, if at all. My intent is to give players agency through the systems that reveal things about the historical decision space.
Grant: What historical period does Cross Bronx Expressway cover? What is the thesis of the game?
NBS: Cross Bronx Expressway covers from 1940-2000, modeling urban development in the South Bronx during this period as a city-builder. It aims to simulate the complex decision space of its three factions, as they deal with historical events, and the conflicting interests of the other players. It explores the complexity of urban development, by evaluating the socio-economic impacts on the population.
Grant: Why is this “struggle” a good fit for inclusion in the Irregular Conflicts Series?
NBS: The Irregular Conflicts Series has the ambition to use games to explore conflicts as they happened. It’s no secret that the series is a branch from Volko Ruhnke’s influential COIN Series, but I believe the main reason GMT started ICS was to get into those areas of history that can be modeled with the mechanisms of asymmetric conflict, but for which counterinsurgency theory is no longer applicable. It was really special to me that GMT wanted Cross Bronx Expressway in the Irregular Conflicts Series because it seems like such a big stretch. What it shows though is the limitless potential for conflict simulations to capture these complexities of the human condition.
Grant: The game description states that the game is a “competitive city-builder with collective loss conditions”. What does this mean for players?
NBS: Because the game is working to model the human impacts of city-building, what’s at risk in the game has to be more than individual players losing. As such the game has two collective loss conditions. The first is triggered if the city goes bankrupt, which it was historically on the verge of in the 1970’s. The second loss condition is if the prison system is over used to mitigate the vulnerable population. If either of these things happen the game immediately ends and all players lose regardless of the score.
Grant: How has Jane Jacobs’ pivotal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities effected your design?
NBS: As amazing and fundamental as Jacobs’ work is to modern urban studies, the impacts it had on the situation in the South Bronx was negligible. Much of her activism came after the projects that devastated the Bronx had begun. The stopping of the Lower Manhattan Expressway did nothing to stall the Cross Bronx or any of the other Bronx roadway projects. What her work points to is that there was awareness of and resistance to the urban plans of the time based on an understanding of their potential impacts. Too often in the face of criticism modernity is positioned as inevitable, allowing the actors to ignore the issues that may and often do arise. Jacobs’ voice showed there were other ways to think about life in cities, but those with the power to do so chose differently, for their own reasons, some of which show up through play in the game.
Grant: What three factions are included as playable “combatants”?
NBS: The three factions are Public which represents local, city, state and federal government, Private which represents those people, companies and institutions with private interests in the area that are not based in the area, and Community which represents the businesses and organizations local to the area.
Grant: What is the focus of each of these factions? What makes each of them unique?
NBS: Each faction has their own set of scoring objectives, which are achieved through the manipulation of the board state. If any faction scores all four of their objectives during the census they win the game, otherwise the faction that scores their objectives the most at the end of the game wins. These objectives range from the Public faction scoring if they can balance their budget to stay out of debt, to the Private faction scoring if they can supplement enough of their income from the recurring revenue of loan payments, to the Community faction scoring if they can build enough social coalitions to provide for the needs of the population. The push pull nature of these objectives keeps the fight over the game state quite interactive.
Grant: What is the layout of the board? What do the different numbered areas represent?
NBS: The map is laid out into the seven districts of the southern section of the Bronx, numbered for the local community boards. Each district has a set of rows for pieces, where each row abstracts as a neighborhood in the district.
Grant: What are the different pieces used that players place on the board?
NBS: In a neighborhood there is space for up to five population cubes and one vulnerable cube, one infrastructure disc, two organizations and one socio-economic marker. The infrastructure disc and organization cylinders are faction pieces which use color to indicate which faction they belong to. The infrastructure disc houses the population and vulnerable cubes. The pair of organizations determine the state of the socio-economic marker.
The combined state of the neighborhoods define a district. Looking at a district you can read the social state based on the size of the population, whether that population is all housed and how vulnerable that population is. You can read the economic state by the number of infrastructure and organizations in the district and the size of the population they serve.
Grant: The game uses Event Cards as an important starter to the action. What is the makeup of the Event Deck? How are these cards divided?
NBS: The event deck is composed of ninety events, fifteen cards for each of the six decades covered in the game. During play you would use between five and nine cards in a decade depending on the scenario. This means that overall, you are possibly using less than half of the available cards for each decade meaning there is quite a bit of replayabilty there as each game can be different.
Grant: What is the anatomy of these Event Cards?
NBS: Each card has a year, and title with a little bit of historical text, beneath which is the action which will be performed by the event and at the bottom, eligibility order for the event.
Grant: Can you please share with us a few examples and explain their effect?
NBS: The faction that activates “Caribe Democratic Club” is able to place an organization for free with a grant which will also pay for that organization’s upkeep in the census. They then get to move 2 of the pink vulnerable cubes to adjacent districts. The language here is left open to provide the player who executes the action the most agency. By default the Community player would run this event, but the Public and Private may plan to take that opportunity. Depending on who is executing and the game state when it comes up, the second part of the action may see vulnerable moving out of the district selected, into the district selected or in completely different districts.
Grant: How did you decide of the various card effects and faction alignments?
NBS: While the events themselves have remained, the effects and how they are used has been through many iterations. Perhaps the biggest shift in this regard was the loss of conditionality and specificity, where particular events had to happen in their historic districts. At this point in the design history there were also certain events like “Cross Bronx Expressway” that were so pivotal to the history it seemed strange to allow players the ability to not build it. So if these pivotal events showed up the rules at the time held that the actions had to happen.
Despite the alignment with the history, both of these proved very limiting in play, stripping away player agency without actually adding anything to the gameplay. The following version saw event actions losing most of their conditionality and all of the specificity, though there are still a number of events with quite unique effects. Pivotals became unnecessary with an update on the sequence of play that ensured every event drawn would occur. This subtle shift makes the event deck the tick of history pushing the game forward that players must strategize to contend against.
Grant: What actions are available to the factions?
NBS: The base action types are, building infrastructure, placing and using organizations, moving population and vulnerable and gaining resources. Each faction has a different means of doing these actions to various effects and at varying cost.
Grant: How do players cooperate together while simultaneously trying to meet their own objectives?
NBS: A core part of the design is the coalition system. Organizations are used to mitigate the vulnerable population. Each faction has actions which use their own organizations to do so. If those organizations are in coalitions however, they can do so with greater effect, but organizations can only form coalitions with the organizations of another faction. It is impossible to win the game without forming coalitions, making the choice of who to enter a coalition with and when, a very strategic decision.
Grant: What type of an experience does this delicate dance create? How much player interaction is there?
NBS: It makes the game quite tactical. Everyone is working to deal with the situation as it is during each turn, but they will only be evaluated for scoring purposes based on how those actions align with their long term strategy. Players will find themselves creating a coalition for economic purposes in the middle of a decade so they can use those resources to pull ahead of their ally by the Census.
Grant: How does debt effect the game and how do players manage it?
NBS: The game is a simulation of a history of debt so it plays a crucial role in the design. If you want to talk about abstractions, the economics in the game are definitely an abstract that aims to model how the debt crisis was the result of bad financial planning in the face of mounting expenses.
Players in the game will need to first pay to place the needed pieces on the board to manage the social state. By the census they will also have to be able to maintain those pieces, a cost that can be offset if the pieces are in districts that earn profits from the population. Not earning the needed profits to pay for all of the upkeep of their pieces, is a primary way players get into debt. Each faction has an action to gain resources to get them out of debt, but they come with their own cost.
Grant: What role does the Census play in the outcome?
NBS: The Census is the stability check. It starts with quotas that put at-risk vulnerable population into jail. This is when the disenfranchisement loss condition is checked. Then the players will gain profits and pay off expenses before the numbers are checked for bankruptcy. Players then score their objective points based on the game state.
Grant: How are vulnerable populations effected by the players? What is the lesson to be learned from this negative effect?
NBS: The vulnerable represent the percentage of the population in a district that are vulnerable, represented by separate pink cubes in the district. Many of the actions performed by events and players will create vulnerabilities in the population adding pink cubes to districts. These vulnerabilities decrease the economic potential of districts and socially put the population at risk. As such each of the factions are trying to mitigate the situation with their organizations. Public organizations create social work cases, Private organizations hire employees and Community organizations create activists. Through the game players will come to see the various ways in which these vulnerabilities arose, and work their hardest to mitigate them towards their faction objectives.
Grant: What issues are you still trying to work through in the playtest process?
NBS: We’re starting to get into the deep strategy portions of the game. The rules are holding together well at this point, and so we’re seeing how things evolve over the subsequent plays as players become more familiar with the system and various metas start to form.
Grant: What great suggestions have your playtest team suggested?
NBS: Lots of help around how to communicate these ideas. As a designer that leans toward heavier designs it’s been important that the concepts are clear and to the point. This game will be a relatively new type of experience for a lot of players and so finding the best way to onboard them to the system is what we’ve been refining a lot based on the playtest feedback.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
NBS: I’m most pleased by the conversation I’m seeing happening in games. Because some level of cooperation is required, many points of the game become negotiations. The ways that the shifting motivations are expressed through table talk in some playtests has been just a joy to see. At the same time I’ve seen chess like play with very little negotiation and almost no discussion until the census when they look back. Even in that limited communication the narrative hooks show up connecting game play to the history. That’s been very rewarding for me as ultimately my hope is that this game leads to those conversations about the history.
Grant: What other design ideas are you working on or stewing over?
NBS: I have quite a few designs still on my list. The common theme among them is this idea of modernity. Cross Bronx Expressway approaches it through the lens of the modern city. During the period covered the definition of the modern city was established and the game simulates the often hidden impacts of that modernity. Some of my other designs look at other key moments in history where a modern ideal was defined and explores the impacts of that modernity on the people it was meant to serve. I have a couple of designs from periods prior to Cross Bronx Expressway, a few that overlap, and a couple that come after. My current focus is on earlier periods and the modern concepts of empire and warfare.
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Non-Breaking Space. I am very excited to bring this new and interesting looking game to our readers while also learning about it myself. These type of games, that look at a history and try to scrutinize it while looking for clarity on how it effects all of the players involved, are absolutely necessary in our understanding of our history. Without that, it is just a bunch of dates on a calendar and units moving on a map. I am eager to learn more about this game, the history covered and to see what else the Irregular Conflict Series brings!
Here is a link to a promotional video on the game that really sparked my interest:
If you are interested in Cross Bronx Expressway, you can pre-order a copy on the game page from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-953-cross-bronx-expressway.aspx