Public Assistance
Why bother working for a living?
on Tuesday 14 August 2007
by Areala author list print the content item create pdf file of the content item
in Reviews > Tabletop Gaming Reviews
comments: 1
author awarded score: 83/100
not rated -

Hammerhead Enterprises set out to make a board game that explained exactly what happens to people on Welfare (or the Dole if you live across the pond) and why they would choose to stay there instead of joining the work force. Whether you think they hit the mark or missed completely, you're in for an hour or two worth of chuckles while you play.

It seems impossible to grasp the reason behind Ron Pramschufer and Bob Johnson's burning drive to create a game that seems to encourage deviant behavior at the expense of that which society has deemed better for everyone. But their idea was to make a point: so many people in the Welfare system in the 1970s were playing the system like it was a game that it seemed only natural to make a game out of the Welfare system. Public Assistance is the result.

A note to non-US citizens - this is a game with a concept and humour that centers around the US institution of Welfare. On the Welfare system, the government provides for those who cannot provide for themselves. Most often, these are single parents with one or more dependant children who are unable to find work for various reasons (most commonly due to serious injury, lack of educational requirements necessary to meet employment standards, or other social circumstances). While the system was created to be a short-term benefit to those who were caught in its "safety net," through the years, there have been people who figured out how to "play" the system and continue drawing a paycheck in exchange for doing nothing at all, and who are often rewarded by the government for doing things they would be "punished" for outside of the Welfare system.

Public Assistance takes this to an entirely new level of absurdity in an effort to lampoon the stereotype of the working-class Joe getting screwed at every turn for following the rules while the welfare recipient can, literally, get away with murder and profit from it. The game, upon its release in 1980, received such an enormous amount of vitriol in the political landscape, from such organizations as the Maryland Welfare Department, the South Carolina Welfare Department, N.O.W. (the National Organization of Women), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization formed to help ethnic minorities), and the NASW (National Association of Social Workers), that eventually the US government got involved in a series of steps to actually ban the game from being sold in 1983. Citing racism, sexism, and classism as their reasons (despite the lack of any of the above appearing in the game) and claiming that board games are not protected under the First Amendment right to free speech, the courts of the US "legally" banned Public Assistance.

Of course, if a game was that horrible that the authorities felt they had to make sure that you didn't play it, it just makes you want it that much more, right? So the people behind Public Assistance have brought it back to the spotlight, and it is now legally available for purchase as a slightly jazzed-up version from the original 1980 printing. Since I don't have the new version, however, I will only be dealing with the game and the rules that pertain to the original printing. This is one you have to see to believe.

The game board is your standard size "unfold it" board, similar to the one used in Monopoly. Also like Monopoly, it comes with several hundred thousand dollars in play money. But that is where the similarity ends. Each player, up to four, picks a pawn and places it on the 1st of the Month. The 50 Working Person's Burden and 50 Welfare Benefit cards are each shuffled and placed in their appropriate place on the board. Each player takes a month marker and places it on their "January" slot, and play begins.

At the start of the game, everybody is on Welfare. On a normal turn, you roll the two six-sided dice and advance that many squares, then do what the instructions on the space tell you to do. Sometimes, this is nothing (for example, the square reading "Pitch pennies all day" confers no benefit or detriment to a player). Sometimes, it means a lifestyle change ("Get a Job" for those on Welfare, or the converse of "Go On Welfare" for those who are employed). Other occurances can get you some income, or deprive you of much-needed cash. Every so often, you might even find yourself with an Illegitimate Child (these have been changed to "Out-Of-Wedlock" children in the updated version) which costs you absolutely nothing, but forces each player in the Working Person's Rut to fork over $100 to the bank ostensibly to pay the costs associated with having a child that is no relation to them, and earns the proud parent additional money every time he or she hits the 1st of the Month.

The concept of the game is to be the player with the highest amount of money after players have made 12 rotations around the board. Players in the Working Person's Rut are assessed taxes against their income at the end of the game as just one more way to be kicked when they are down. Obviously, the idea is to stay on Welfare as long as is humanly possible without being forced into the working world.

The rules work so hard against those with jobs that it is hilarious - Welfare Recipients are allowed to play the lottery and bet on the racetrack as a way to increase their funds while Workers according to the rules "do not have time to go to the race track and work too hard for their money to squander it by playing the lottery." If a player on Welfare runs out of money, he or she loses one turn, gets an emergency welfare bonus of $500, and is returned to the 1st of the Month square as play proceeds. Workers who run out of funds, on the other hand, are forced to borrow money from the bank at 20% interest. Ouch!

The ability to go from being high on the hog to utterly screwed into the lowest depths of debt, and then back into a comfortably safe zone in a manner of a few turns is what gives this game such a great humour factor, and the more players you have playing, the more fun you can have mocking and abusing the people who will no doubt be mocking and abusing you right back as soon as they get back on the dole and your sorry bottom is doing a turn on the Working Person's Rut. In past games I've played, the moniker of "sex addict" is often thrown at the player who manages to accumulate the most Illegitimate Children while on Welfare (you lose your kids and have to start over with zero whenever you get a job, so there can be more than one sex addict throughout the course of the game), and chortles of "Ooooh! Dice times ten (or twenty)!" get tossed around with gleeful abandon when an unlucky worker winds up having to pay rent or other utilities. It's all in good, clean fun, honest. :)

While anybody can play this game and enjoy it, perhaps the most fun I've ever seen someone have with it came from my aunt, who was, in fact, a social worker herself during the 1980s and who could not stop laughing and telling stories about some of the people she encountered in her daily routine at the office. That the game sometimes hit so close to home for her was both hilarious and a little scary at the same time. That said, though, you don't need to know either a welfare recipient or a social worker to have a great time with this game--just a bunch of people who are willing to be a little politically incorrect and laugh at the misfortunes of themselves and others.

If Public Assistance has a downside, it is that the components are a little on the average-to-weak sides. The dice are normal six-siders, the playing pawns look like the regular pawns that came out of any 80s-era boardgame like Sorry, and the cardstock that the Benefit and Burden cards are printed on is fairly light and flimsy - one spilled drink, and you can kiss a card goodbye. The chits that represent the children and the month markers are also very lightweight, and prone to blowing across the table if any sudden poof of air hits them. The money is lighter than Monopoly and just as prone to getting blown around and lost. The board, however, is quite sturdy and will stand up easily to repeated playings as I can personally attest.

Public Assistance is one of those rare games that seems to make just about everybody laugh, and as the makers themselves state on the website, "We felt we had a large, natural market for the game with everybody's "Uncle Charlie," or "Aunt Bea" who complained about welfare." And no group that I have ever introduced the game to has failed to have fits of laughter througout play. It's not exactly the kind of game to drag out at every family gathering, but when you can't decide on what you want to play, consider offering Public Assistance up as a suggestion. It's easy for new players to learn, and it guarantees laughs from anyone who isn't such a hardcore Welfare advocate that he cannot laugh at himself.

For those who want to check out what all the fuss is about themselves, you can point your browsers to the Public Assistance website and get the full story behind the 1983 ban from the creators themselves, as well as links to some of the "Nice" and "Naughty" mail they've received about the game over the years and purchase the game if you're interested.

Another excellent review, which is an especially interesting read because it's about a game that comments (albeit in a comic way) on political issues in the "real" world. Although the fascinating historical context in which the game was originally created is clearly outlined in the review, the amusing, politically incorrect premise of the game will undoubtely be intelligible to all citizens of modern welfare states (simply because every democratic state has some kind of safety net which potentially can be exploited in some way).

Obviously, though, this kind of game is bound to be even more controversial in countries with more generous safety nets and higher taxes than the United States. A good example would be my own country, Sweden; in which a debate about the societal costs of unemployment and the supposed barriers to effective job seeking posed by the welfare system was one of several factors which led to the spectacular defeat of the Social Democratic government by a new center-right coalition in the last general election in 2006 (to illustrate how exceptionally unusal this is, we should note that the Social Democrats have been in power for over 65 of the last 75 years in Sweden...). So if "Public Assistance" or any similar game had been introduced in Sweden during the election campaign of '06, I imagine it would have made quite an impact on the political debate... ;)

[ Comment by Demiath :: 17 Aug : 04:42 ]

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