Daybreak Game Review


12 June 2024
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The board game Daybreak is about collaboratively saving the planet by controlling world powers, using policies and technologies to decrease global warming. It's a somber topic, but a must-play game.

Written by Dan Jolin

Why do you play board games? To escape, or to engage? Most of us would answer the former, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Board games have value precisely because they transport us away from the daily grind and the stresses that come with it. But since their earliest days, many board games have also encouraged us to engage with ideas and relevant themes, by exploring or at least considering pertinent concepts or issues through play. The danger with this kind of game, however, is that its preachiness – or teachiness – can drench the fun.

What is the board game Daybreak?

A first look at Daybreak might set some escapists’ alarm bells warning. After all, it fundamentally and directly concerns one of the greatest causes of modern anxiety: climate change. Its bright, appealing design and upbeat tone brim with positivity and ‘we can do this’ optimism, but there’s no avoiding the fact that every play will, to varying degrees, be a narrative of all-too-relatable crisis and disaster. It also doesn’t hold back from educating – though much of this is done via unobtrusive QR codes on cards, which ping you over to texty explainers of such climate-change-battling policies as universal public transport or microgrids. (These web pages also give a bit more detail on how each card works, in lieu of an FAQ or appendix, though that is somewhat annoyingly buried at the bottom.) So it is, primarily, a game of engagement, rooted in the right here and right now. But that does not stop it from being both beautifully crafted and actually huge fun.

Appropriately, it is a cooperative game, co-designed (with Matteo Menapace) by the modern master of the genre: Matt “Pandemic” Leacock. But don’t expect this to be another Pandemic-a-like co-op; Leacock’s not trying to Trojan horse in all those familiar mechanisms. The primary drive here is engine-building, despite that feeling counterintuitive for a co-op experience given its leaning toward competitive efficiency and a lack of player interaction.

Related article: An interview with Daybreak designer Matt Leacock on another of his wildly successful games – Ticket to Ride Legacy: Legends of the West

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How do you play Daybreak?

Each player takes the role of a global power bloc (China, Europe, United States, Majority World), with its own board that tracks, via tokens, its energy output, emissions, resilience (social, environmental, infrastructure) and crisis levels. They start with five region-specific Local Project cards (an extra starter set is provided for solo play), granting actions such as Dirty Electricity Phaseout or Green Tech Exports. These cards are each the foundation of a card stack, which will be added to as the game progresses. The main phase of each of the Daybreak’s six rounds is built around these local projects, with players working on their anti-global-heating strategy synergies simultaneously. Cards (drawn every round) are played in three possible ways: on top of a stack, replacing the action it grants; on the bottom of a stack (keeping its symbols revealed) to better fuel the top card’s action; or discarded, to trigger certain actions. For example, Clean Electricity Plants gives you a green energy token per pylon symbol in your stack for every Local Project card you discard. Other cards’ usage is limited to once per turn, or once for each of a certain kind of symbol you might have in a stack.

All this means there is a lot of thinking to be done, regarding how each card should most efficiently be used, while also juggling the outcomes you need to achieve. Namely: meeting your energy demand every round (if you don’t, you gain Communities in Crisis tokens ­– have too many and you all lose); reducing your emissions (which create carbon cubes); increasing the number of emissions that can be sequestered on the central board (via trees, oceans or direct air capture installation tokens, onto which those carbon cubes must be moved ­– any uncaptured cubes contribute toward rising global temperature, which intensifies any crises); building up resilience in three categories, to help counteract the horrible Crisis cards that are revealed at the end of each round (the closest thing to Pandemic’s outbreaks); and managing those aforementioned communities in crisis. The ultimate aim is to achieve Drawdown, where more carbon is being removed from the atmosphere than the players are collectively producing. If you survive a final onslaught of crises (yikes), then the game is won.

Daybreak Review

So yes, there is a lot of thinking. But there is also much discussion. While engine-building is usually done in silos, Daybreak makes it a collaborative effort. As cards can be played and actions can be taken in any order, players can easily advise and assist each other, debating how best to use their cards in their own tableaux. Or, indeed, how best to contribute them to global concerns, through battling crises where possible, or fuelling Global Projects cards for everyone’s benefit – though, to be honest, in each of our plays, these cards were often so situational they never felt that useful.

It’s in this discussion and collaboration that Daybreak really comes alive, and bears out its hope-driven theme: while every power bloc must tend to its own development, survival and emissions, it’s only through sharing intel and helping the others that the world as a whole can be prevented from collapsing into a hot mess.

There is also an interesting element of asymmetry, here. If you play as Majority World, you’ll have a tougher time than the other blocs, with higher energy demands and greater emissions. So it’s incumbent on the other players to help you where possible – though you’ll still have plenty to contribute, through Women’s Empowerment, for example (discarding cards to gain resilience tokens), or Youth Climate Movement (allowing you to draw extra cards).

As with most co-ops, it is not the easiest of games. During the Crisis Stage, bad effects can cumulate and cascade, such as when rolls of the Planetary Effects Die push the globe up a variety of concerning tracks (Desertification, Thawing Permafrost, and so on) and past tipping points. And, given the all-too-real stakes Daybreak presents, losing can feel more dispiriting than in other games.

However, a really neat touch is the inclusion of Challenge cards. These are entirely optional, but are essentially provided as official hacks to either make the game a bit tougher (for planet-cooling veterans), easier (for newbies or anyone who’s tired of feeling like they’re constantly drowning in thawing permafrost), or just different. You can either take a single card that affects the game as a whole, or cards that affect players individually. Either way, it provides some welcome variety and a smart way to mitigate potential frustrations.

This kind of thoughtfulness permeates the whole of Daybreak. Leacock and Menapace have evidently invested a lot of time, effort and heart into making it the best possible experience, from setup to pack up (love the component trays), right the way through to the game’s own environmental impact: notably and appropriately it contains no plastic components or harmful textiles, and is FSC certified, too. Together, they have created a game which, we’d argue, makes engagement appealing to even the most ardent escapist.

Should you play Daybreak?

We consider Daybreak to be a Must Play game. A worthy but also entertaining achievement by Matt Leacock and Matteo Menapace, which might even give you hope that the world’s biggest problem is a solvable one.

You should try Daybreak if you liked Pandemic. The mechanisms are different, but once again you’ll be collaborating to make the lives of everyone on the planet that much better.

About Daybreak

Designers: Matt Leacock, Matteo Menapace

Publisher: CMYK

Time: 60-90 mins

Players: 1-4

Age: 10+

Price: £60

 

WHAT’S IN THE BOX?

  • 1 Central board
  • 4 Player boards
  • 2 Player board extenders
  • 158 Local Project cards
  • 48 Crisis cards
  • 24 Global Project cards
  • 9 Reference cards
  • 74 Clean/Dirty Energy tokens
  • 60 Resilience tokens
  • 69 Emissions tokens
  • 48 Communities in Crisis tokens
  • 10 Temperature Band tokens
  • 40 Carbon cubes
  • 20 Five-value Carbon tokens
  • 6 Planetary Effects trackers
  • 1 Current Round tracker disc
  • 4 Global Project tracker discs
  • 9 DAC tokens
  • 13 Trees tokens
  • 11 Oceans tokens
  • 1 Planetary Effects die
  • 1 Geoengineering die
  • 1 Rulebook
  • 6 Pulp storage trays
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