Board games love to conceptualise historical events as the setting for a couple hours of moving meeples and tokens across the kitchen table, but every once in a while a title comes along that promises to be as enlightening as it is entertaining.
That could be the case with Rising Waters, a board game focused on the devastating flood of the Mississippi River in 1927 and how systemic racism in the American South disproportionately affected Black communities, many of which were forced to relocate or made refugees in the flood’s wake. Currently crowdfunding on Kickstarter, the board game centres its mechanics on collective effort, saving community and how race and class historically worsened ecological disasters.
Rising Waters was designed by Dr. Scout Blum, a professor of history at Troy University in Alabama. After finishing in the top 12 of the Zenobia Awards, Blum was contacted by the Central Michigan University Press with an offer to publish the board game. The team put the design through a ringer of cultural and historical consultancy while also bringing in reviewers who could refine Rising Waters for use both as a classroom tool and a hobby experience worth including on players’ shelves.
Two to four players will work cooperatively to save homes and communities from the path of the Mississippi River’s overflowing banks as weeks of rainfall surge beyond what the levees can contain or divert. The hex grid board portrays an abstraction of the massive river, which spans 2,340 miles (3,770 km) and several states. Over the course of each round, representing a week during the 1926 and 1927 flooding period, they can spend resources to upgrade powers on their own player boards, assign workers to relief camps, levee-building sites and evacuation points, and trade cards amongst themselves.
Players are able to collaborate and plan actions through nearly every phase of the session - they will need every advantage to combat the colossal forces of nature - weather forecast cards alter the conditions for the upcoming round and might throw well-laid plans into the deepening mud. All of this work must be done through a system controlled by white landowners, represented by cards that introduce opportunities for work but also setbacks in the form of racial discrimination and community violence.
It’s not hard to see how this design might lean into historical violence as spectacle, unwittingly or otherwise. The campaign page explicitly states that the goal is to centre the African American experience without erasing the real conditions of life in Jim Crow-era America. Players upgrade their powers by spending resources gathered by the community, and though they will encounter hate from the white owner class, the educational goal is to show that Black Americans deployed their own agency in saving their family, friends and neighbours from the path of the flood.
Blum wants Rising Waters to perform as a classroom aide as well as a board game, which fits with her professional pedagogy. She is the director of the non-profit Mockingbird Games, which publishes tabletop games from young designers and those in education. She also talks a bit about the use of roleplay and tabletop games as learning aids in her history classes. Rising Waters will be the second historical game project funded on Kickstarter by the Central Michigan University Press, preceded by Monumental Consequences in late 2021.
Art for the cards and components will be provided by illustrators Lamaro Smith and Makiyah Alexander. More information about the editing and sensitivity process, including a list of the consultants brought into the effort, can be found on Rising Waters’ Kickstarter campaign page.
Rising Waters will be available as a physical box and print-and-play version, while specific tiers exist for educators to purchase classroom bundles. The digital files are expected to be ready by January of 2023 - the board game will begin shipping to backers in April.