Playing Climate Oasis

Above: Climate Oasis designers Mario Roaf-Esparza and Jessy Bradish smile as the world laid out before them crumbles.

Board Games for Humanity

Climate Oasis offers an entertaining spin
on coping with global threats

Story and Photo By Sam Tillis

The mood is tense at the Oasis. Our little community has done well for itself, but a series of crises threatens to destroy all we have built. We have only just dealt with the massive influx of refugees following the breakdown of the European Union, and now the United States is descending into a six-way civil war over rights to the nation’s diminished water supply. Our windmill is damaged, our well is infested with mushrooms, our bounty hunter is injured, corporate drones buzz perilously close by, and the ubiquitous firenados (look it up) ravage the land. Do we devote our limited resources toward resolving our current problems, or should we build forward-looking projects to ensure a brighter future?

This sort of decision arises on a turn-by-turn basis in Climate Oasis, a cooperative board game in development by Jessy Bradish and Mario Roaf-Esparza. Two to six players work together to create an eco-friendly, sustainable Oasis in a 2070 AD devastated by the effects of catastrophic climate change and runaway capitalism. Aside from taking care of jobs around the Oasis and responding to geopolitical developments, the players must contend with the monolithic All$eed Korporation, which has trademarked all commonly available seeds and sees the Oasis as a threat to its dominance.

Dodging Firenados and Gopher-Newts

I had the opportunity to play a demo copy of Climate Oasis this September and found it easy to learn. The game ran about 35 minutes including a brief overview of the rules, though I am told that we had a fairly lucky run (firenados notwithstanding). Players begin the game with a small but replenishing collection of skill tokens, which they can trade among themselves to handle the various threats and opportunities that crop up over the course of the game. On completing objectives, players gain useful resources, but threats have a habit of piling up and unmet opportunities expire over time, so carefully choosing what to do each turn is vital and provides much of the game’s tension. Fulfilling the requirements of project cards—each of which contains a snippet of text revealing a facet of the game’s dystopian setting—leads to a win, but too many unchecked threats or unhealed injuries represent the collapse of the Oasis and a victory for All$eed.

Climate Oasis deftly balances its apocalyptic themes with a quirky, humorous tone: Players might chuckle when they encounter an outbreak of Wester Nile Virus (“it’s even further west!”) or a pack of gopher-newts. A bright, almost cartoonish design by Stuart Sharpe ensures that the mood remains lighthearted. Nevertheless, listening to news of record-high temperatures, hurricanes, and wildfires on my car radio as I returned home from Mario’s Oakland apartment, I couldn’t shake my sense that the game could be eerily prescient.

Seeds in Stand-Up

The first seeds of Climate Oasis were planted in a stand-up comedy routine. Jessy Bradish, a business consultant with a background in international environmental policy and business administration, pursues comedy as a side gig. In one routine, she joked about wanting to make an environmentalist video game, “like Grand Theft Auto, but instead of running away from the police . . . you’re running away from hurricanes and eating really big spiders.”

When Mario joined her on the project, the idea became more serious and morphed from video to board game. (“I’ve been making games since I was 8 years old,” Mario tells me.) A software engineer, Mario insisted that the game be cooperative, a proviso that may reflect his teenage years spent at a Quaker boarding school. Other influences range from Octavia Butler’s science fiction novel Parable of the Sower to projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as existing board games like Pandemic and
Settlers of Catan.

“The ultimate goal of the game is to get people to think about climate change,” Jessy explains, lamenting the lack of attention our society pays to this critical issue. “Climate change is not something that you stop,” adds Mario. “It’s something that you integrate into your society moving forward and think about to create justice and equality.” They hope that Climate Oasis can provide a framework for considering how a post–climate change society could be structured.

The duo is currently seeking a producer to help them bring Climate Oasis to market. By the time this article goes to print, they will have returned from Essen Spiel, the world’s largest board game convention, where they will have pitched Climate Oasis to game companies from around the world. If they succeed, you too may be able to build your own Oasis— or succumb to firenados in the attempt—sometime soon. ♦