06 July 2018
It’s a riot of colour, but does it do justice to its theme?
The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are some of the world’s most notorious slums. For decades, residents have been forced to contend with poverty, violent crime and police brutality. In 2005, Dutch artists Dre Urhahn and Jeroen Koolhaas embarked on an ambitious project to improve conditions, working with locals to paint run-down buildings, turning them into massive, vibrant works of art.
The pair argued that as well as beautifying areas, the scheme would provide education opportunities for local youth. Now their efforts have inspired a board game that lets players try their hand at a bit of colourful civic regeneration.
Favelas sees you and your friends start the game with hex grids of differently-coloured houses. As you play you’ll draft building tiles from a random selection, laying them on top of your existing grid and changing the composition of your neighbourhood. You’ll splash some purple here, some green there, covering up existing shades as you go. At the end of each round you’ll get points for any colours you have a majority in. But you’ll also be able to shift the value of colours as you play, increasing or decreasing their potential reward in scoring phases.
It’s an engaging enough puzzle, and it forces you to pay close attention to what your opponents are doing. If they’ve neglected to include a particular colour, you can aggressively add it to your own pile. If they’ve built an unassailable lead in a shade, you can deliberately crash its value to ensure they don’t get a massive stack of points. It’s mechanically simple, but it takes some careful analysis, and the unpredictable flow of shuffled tiles means you’re always trying to work out the best use of the resources available to you. It’s not incredibly deep, but with games clocking in at around 20 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
In some respects, though, Favelas falls short. With three or four players, there’s plenty of competition for dominance in different colours. With two, there’s a tendency to grab early majorities and stick with them for the duration of the game. It makes the building process feel secondary to nudging the values of different colours up or down, and it’s not nearly as satisfying as playing with a higher player count.
And then it’s difficult to know how to feel about the theme. Is it a positive depiction of a poor community? An antidote to the kind of poverty porn that’s often produced about the favelas? Not really. It’s an abstract tile-laying game, and there’s no reason it couldn’t be about farming or transport networks.
In most cases, a compelling enough game can make up for a pasted-on theme. But here, it amounts to a dismissal of some very real issues. Rio’s slums have suffered from poor sanitation, forced evictions and violent incursions by police death squads. The only hint at any of this in Favelas is a one-line sentence in the rulebook about vague ‘socio-economic’ issues. Playing this game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the region’s biggest problem is finding the optimum ratio of red to yellow houses, and its take on the neighbourhoods seems heavily sanitised for European and American audiences.
Ostensibly, Favelas is all about colours. In reality, it feels more like whitewashing.
Favelas is undeniably pretty, and as a competitive puzzle it does a decent job of producing some head-scratching moments. But you could say the same thing about plenty of other games, and its theme doesn’t sit comfortably with its jolly presentation.
Designer: Chris Bryan
Artist: Brigette Indelicato, Kwanchai Moriya
Time: 30-45 minutes
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