Turning Players Into Pawns

Ben Crair profiles the creator of Train, a Holocaust boardgame:

Earlier this year, when Roger Ebert declared that “videogames can never be art,” some gamers sought to change his mind by suggesting he check out Train by game designer Brenda Brathwaite, one of the industry’s trailblazing women. ...

Each turn, players can roll a die and choose to advance their boxcar or load it with pawns; alternatively, they can use a card to speed or slow a boxcar’s progress. Brathwaite’s goal, she says, was to make a game about complicity, and so the rules drop the player not in the shoes of a Holocaust victim but a train conductor who helped make the Nazi system run.

In November, I watched three college students play Train at the Euphrat Museum of Art in Cupertino, California. As the game began, a man wandered over and looked at the pawns. “Are those people?” he asked, “in boxcars?”

“They’re traveling first-class,” a student named Jon replied.

At that point, Train had not formally revealed its subject, and Jon and the others played as though it were a normal board game, trying to outrace each other. When Rob was the first to move a boxcar to the end of the line, he followed the rules and drew a Terminus card. Train’s theme was no longer hidden. The card said “Dachau.”