Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explores the intersection of two groups of people, boardgamers and vegans, to see if the rise of the vegan boardgamer community is something we should be paying attention to.
It sounds like the title of a blockbuster film, doesn’t it?
It has a fantasy feel. A touch of struggle against an evil system. A dash of anti-hero redemption. This is no fiction, though. Alas, this may just be a title of a short chapter in an obscure history book of the future. If a community of vegan boardgamers exist, that is. If the intersection between the vegan world and the board games world has created something beyond the sum of its parts. A phenomenon worth writing about.
We know that veganism is becoming mainstream, and the number and types of vegans are increasing, as is the diversity of the vegan population. There may have been a time where you could count the number of Catholic Hindu green-eyed vegan ethnomusicologists with the fingers of one hand, but nowadays, you may need several hands. By now there must be at least a vegan for each type, sub-group, sub-division or sub-categorisation of any human population, profession or identity. Because being vegan is compatible with most ideologies, religions, cultures and nations, and, with the right modifications, many professions and hobbies, finding people that are vegan and followers of “something else” at the same time is not uncommon. Therefore, meeting vegans who like to play board games is as uneventful as meeting vegans who like to dance the tango.
But, is it? I’ll tell you why I have some doubts. I live in London, UK, which at least at the end of the second decade of the 21st century has been considered one of the most vegan-friendly cities in the world. Before the pandemic, we had the record of the highest number of vegans eateries in one city. According to the restaurant directory and app Happycow, in 2017 London was the first city on their database to surpass 100 completely vegan restaurants, and in 2019 it had 152 fully vegan restaurants citywide. And being one of the most cosmopolitan cities on Earth, this means lots of vegans of many types are interested in doing many different things besides being vegan.
I, one of these vegans who has lived in the city for more than 15 years, have encountered many others. Not just by chance, but because I belong to several vegan clubs and social groups which, before the pandemic, met quite regularly. So, I met vegan runners, vegan theatre fans, vegan museum enthusiasts, vegan bodybuilders, vegan dog lovers, vegan musicians, vegan comedians, vegan ramblers, and vegan board gamers, to mention a few. However, when I started to attend social meetings of the latter, I experienced something slightly intriguing. The number of participants, and the number of meetings, seemed to be increasing considerably with the years. Soon, they began outnumbering any other intersection between vegans and other leisure activities I knew at the time. I began wondering if there is anything in the psyche of a boardgamer and a vegan that is particularly fertile and may explain this phenomenon — if it is really something. This article is my attempt to find out.
Board Gaming Culture
I realised that I assumed everyone knows what a boardgamer is. Just in case, here is a short explanation. A boardgamer is someone particularly keen on playing board games (also known as tabletop games), that are played on a table or flat surface, on a board, with cards, figurines, pieces or other physical items, with other people “face-to-face”. They play them against each other individually or in teams, sometimes acting a role (and these are called role-playing games), or cooperatively to achieve a particular objective set up by the game’s rules. And they do it as a hobby, pastime or a way to have some fun with others.
Probably most people like to play board games from time to time, but you become a board gamer if you like them more than the average person, you play more often (and because of that you get better at it), and you have sufficient knowledge of different games and strategies to win in them so gaming becomes “your thing”. We should not confuse these with just “gamers”, the term which tends to refer to those who often play video games online or with game consoles. No, board gamers — although they may also play many video games— are all about meeting with other people (normally indoors), and playing games on a table, following the specific rules game designers have created (some advanced games may be considerably complex).
Like anything that requires certain knowledge and skills to get better at it, boardgamers ended up creating a fandom community that facilitates meeting to play, organising competitions, ranking players, trying new games and their variations, and generally beginning to form some sort of collective identity. In the past, boardgamers may have been pejoratively described as “geeks” (experts or enthusiasts obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit), but it seems this term has now been reclaimed by some — who now may even describe themselves as BoardGameGeeks. An example of this is the social group of vegan boardgamers I have frequented in London which is called GeekstraVEGANza (get it?). It may be best that its founder tells you what this group is about.
Antonio Favata, the Board Games Organiser
Although I have attended many of the meetups from GeekstraVEGANza, and I have been learning to play different games, I do not consider myself a boardgamer yet. I like playing, and if I had the time and inclination, I easily could become a proper boardgamer as I think I have the mind for it. But so far, I have only tentatively looked at this community with one foot in and one out. So, to learn about the intersection between them and veganism, I thought I would interview some real vegan boardgamers and get their insight.
Antonio Favata is a 38-year-old software engineer originally from Sicily, but he has been living in London for many years now. He has been an ethical vegan for 15 years, and he founded the GeekstraVEGANza meetup group in 2016. He told me why:
“I was already active in the vegan community with different groups and at the same time, I also attended some board game events outside of the vegan community. At one point I decided to put these two interests together. The group originally was created as ‘London Vegan Geeks and Nerds’ on Facebook. It wasn’t necessarily about board games. It was generally speaking about geek culture and all the fandoms that have a bit of a cult status among geeks. But at the same time, there was an existing board game meetup that I was attending, that was called ‘Overboard’. I went after work to attend them but I was uncomfortable spending that much time with non-vegans. It came naturally to think of organising similar events just for vegans.
The first one was a one-off. It was called ‘board game extraveganza’. Then it became a monthly event. Then fortnightly. And at one time it was actually weekly. We started to have up to 60 people at some point. It kind of became unmanageable. We couldn’t fit everyone in the same room. But that was before the pandemic. Now we still have between 20 and 30 people showing up at events.”
To join this group you need to follow certain rules, similar to those from other vegan groups:
“We joined the London Vegan Meetup in 2018, so their rules apply since then. We only have events in places that are at least vegetarian, preferably vegan. London Vegan Meetup does not exclude non-vegans — actually, we are encouraging non-vegans to come to events because we want to spread the word. The only thing we ask is that they only consume vegan products while they are at the events. We actively ask them not to bring non-vegan products. People are free to bring games they want to play. There are a few of us that always bring many games. We are always happy to teach the games that we play. Most games are relatively easy. There will be more complex games for those people who want that kind of experience, but usually are regulars that play that kind of game.”
I asked Antonio if board gamers and vegans are more likely to intersect. He first replied this:
“I don’t think there is a correlation. I met many vegans that don’t like board games, and many people who like board games but are not interested in veganism. If anything, I think there might be a skewed relationship in the sense of we still see some extra interest in socialising from vegans just because it becomes quite normal to look for other vegans, for like-minded people. Finding these events where you can play games with other vegans is just a good excuse for that. I think it was almost a coincidence that these events were popular.”
After a while conversing about this, I asked Antonio again. He added the following:
“I think there is something about the fact that to be vegan you kind of have to have the spirit of going against the grain, and against conventions of society. For some of these games, and for some of the aspects of geek culture, that is kind of resonating. There are different levels of geekiness. Some of these games are more mainstream than others. Maybe I can actually see going in the same direction. In the last few years, it has become more mainstream to play board games. A few years ago you were telling someone that you were a vegan and that was a niche. And you were telling someone that you like playing board games and that was another niche. And the overlap of the two was very very niche. Nowadays maybe there is a little less of that. Both of these things are becoming more mainstream. Maybe there is some kind of parallel there.”
Ian McDonald, the Gamemaster
Another vegan board gamer I interviewed was my Europhile friend Ian McDonald, known for his vegan podcast “The Vegan Option”, and for having produced in it the 15-chapter long series “Vegetarianism: The Story So Far” — which saved me a great deal of research for the history section of my book “Ethical Vegan”. A vegan since 1992, Ian was born in Leeds 51 years ago but now lives in London. He has a PhD in Biochemistry and defines himself as a multiclass scientist/radio producer/software engineer.
I asked Ian for the connection between science and board gaming.
“I think the connexion is modelling. This is quite a personal thing for me to say about why games appeal to me. Part of it is that I am dealing with a structure that is more simple than the real world and I can have a handle on it. And there is something satisfying to me there. A lot of science is putting structures on the complexity of the real world that enables us to put handles on it. And actually saying ‘these are the rules, this is how it operates’. And, of course, much of what I was doing in my PhD, was trying to find simplifications of how proteins behave as large molecules that were accurate but simple enough for the computational power on our hands.”
I asked him if there is anything in the mind of vegans that makes them more likely to become boardgamers.
“There is consistency in gaming, and veganism is the consistent practice of the ethics of decency that most of us go by our day-to-day interactions. So, I think there is definitely consistency and logic in common. But that is a very weak speculation. There are people that come to veganism through a more emotional connexion to animals who doesn’t have that correlation.”
Ian is not just an avid gamer. He also is a role-play gamemaster, who designs and “directs” role-playing games in which people “act” their character instead of just moving some pieces on a board. This sort of game, with rules but also a lot of improvisation, can become very involved, and may last for months. And a gamemaster acts as an organizer, an officiant for regarding rules, an arbitrator, and a moderator. Ian took this role to the next level by clearly veganising it.
“One of the wonderful things about role-playing games is that you can tell whatever kind of story you want. People are most familiar with Dungeons and Dragons. But there are role-playing games for all sorts of things. There are people who investigate wildlife crimes and other animal abuse, and for a while, I had the idea of a team of vegans doing that in a role-playing game. And after going to a couple of vegan food buses, I also liked the idea of a vegan food bus travelling from place to place. And I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in the way that light-heartedly integrates a lot of horror ideas without making it too heavy. So, I put all these three things together to create a new game.
I pitched to friends the idea of a role-playing game using rules and settings that exist for the Buffy and Angel universe but with the vegan food bus that would take on villains of veganism — like evil conglomerates of animal abusers as well as vampires — and combining it with some of the historic traditions that believe in magic — like the Pythagoreans — and tell a story that you can only tell with a bunch of vegan friends. Four people were interested. One would play the character of a Suffragette Victorian watcher, another a vegan blogger/werebadger, another a Pythagorean, another a more straightforward hacker/animal-liberation-type, etc. I basically created stories that pitched these people against a vast evil conglomerate that was trying to commoditise both animals and the fantastic. The first game was in October 2017. There were 12 in-person sessions, and then gaming every couple of weeks online during the pandemic. And the story concluded in 2021.
I became involved in this long-lasting game when Ian asked me to have a couple of cameo appearances playing the character of myself (the undercover zoologist I have been in real life, and it was quite fun (thanks to my character’s help, the vegans eventually won!).
Ian’s game is the perfect epitome of the intersection between veganism and board gaming. I asked him how he sees the vegan cause entering deeper and wider into the board game world:
“Obviously a lot of games experiment with narrative. There are quite a few games that try to post questions that are important, as well as simply being a diversion. And I hope we can do that with animal issues but is a fairy fringe ambition within the game hobby itself, so I’m not sure we’re going to do that. I am reminded of the ‘Landlord game’, now called ‘Monopoly’, which was created by a Quaker to share how terrible a landlord monopoly was. It was completely subverted, but games with messages have a long history.”
It seems to me veganism could provide many interesting narratives to board game designers looking for a compelling and trendy theme. I thought I would contact some.
Andrea Romeo, the Board Game Designer
Ian mentioned that some board game designers — probably the highest status role in the boardgamers’ world — are vegan. Volko Ruhnke is one of them. He designs complex games, including the core rules of the game ‘Gandhi’. Antonio mentioned another one he met on a plane, Andrea Romeo, I decided to try to interview the latter, as he lives closer, in Brighton.
Andrea is also Sicilian but has been living in the UK for 12 years and has been an ethical vegan since 2008. He has a PhD in philosophy, and although he has not published any of his board games yet, he would like to work designing games. Interestingly, the name that appears in his email address is Homo ludens, which means the playful man, and is the title of a book of the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, in which he discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Andrea told me why he wants to become a professional game designer:
“I am trying to become a board game designer because I am interested in bringing people together, better than playing in front of a screen. I don’t play video games. I am only interested in this typology of communication.
I studied this topic at the university just by chance when I got my bachelor degree in Italy in communications science in 2005. Then I took a PhD in philosophy. At the time there was a lot of interest in the potential of new technologies. I began studying the video game traction, and with this, I found Game Science. I found it extremely interesting. In our culture play and games are considered something childish, or something external to the real important things such as work. But instead, I found a massive amount of literature on this. I think every philosopher at a certain point studied it. They found that the phenomenon by which people began separating the playful aspect of humans started at a certain point in history, and become more extreme with the industrialisation of society. The most playful animal in the world is humans. Play in our species is very important, actually is everything. We play all the time, even unconsciously. We tend to use play and games to surround the world through playful symbols to make life more understandable and easy to live.
Then I started to be interested in board games. I simply started buying materials, little houses and figurines, and I began creating worlds. In my opinion, there is a similarity between making art and board games. Both have this characteristic of inventing and building a world. In the case of board games is a world that moves. It’s a physical world. You are like a god, and you decide what the units inside this world need to do.
Then I began working on a game that was connected to the vegan philosophy. There is a game called ‘Agricola’ designed by Uwe Rosenberg in which players become farmers, and they need to build these farms in which they can raise animals or vegetables. In it, I found that raising a carrot and a cow needed the same quantity of resources, which was obviously wrong. I tried to make a more realistic version of that. A simulation of how the system works. The more animals you raise in farms, the lesser the results.”
I asked Andrea the same question I asked the others about the connection between the two worlds.
“In my opinion, there is a connection, because usually, people who play board games may be part of this geek culture. They are people who like to explore new things. They have a playful approach to life. And vegans are pioneers, so maybe there is a connection with games. People that are pioneers like to start new things. It could be books, cinema, science or board games. Board games allow a lot of exploration in the first person, and for people that are pioneers inside this must be very appealing.
As a philosopher, Andrea could dig much deeper into the sociology of gaming, and the connection with veganism.
“The academic interest on human play and games started, and massively spread, with the interest in biology, Nature and the material world from the 17th century. When, in the 19th century, humans started re-thinking the world in terms of ‘flesh’ and ‘body’, in terms of ‘animality’ instead of metaphysic and angelic worlds, suddenly it increased the interest in human play and games, because scholars found that this element was very strong in our species. In a few words, there is a strong connection between our ‘animality” and ‘play’.
We live our childhood — which is very long, a phenomenon called ‘neoteny’ — completely immersed in play. Our life starts as a big game since children play all the time. And we keep this characteristic in our adulthood, as we tend to turn all our reality into games. There is a strong relationship between human play and human animality. We consider ourselves ‘sapiens’, but we are ”sapiens” because we play, because we are ‘Ludens’. It is in the ‘play’ aspect as an exploration of potential worlds that is the essence of our animality, of the human primitive aspect. Therefore, it is in play that we can reconnect to animality and nature, or, vice-versa, that we can destroy them/it. So, there is a strong connection between playing and veganism: of course, because in the act of playing we re-discover our ‘Ludens essence’, our primitive self.”
Other Factors that Connect Veganism with Board Gaming
Talking to Antonio, Ian and Andrea has revealed to me potential connections to explain the rising popularity of board gaming among vegans. I have found a couple more. One is the vegan nature of the physicality of board games. Contrary to several hobbies and pastimes, most board games do not have animal products on them. It’s all paper, plastic, and non-animal glue. This means that, if you were a board gamer before becoming a vegan, you do not need to change much to be able to continue with your hobby. Some of the subject matters and narratives may not be very vegan-friendly, though. Antonio said this about the existence of vegan-friendly board games:
“There is a game called ‘Photosynthesis’ where you are basically growing trees. I suppose that could be seen as a vegan-friendly game. But, unfortunately, is more the case that lots of games have reminders of animal exploitation. We obviously don’t exclude those because no actual animal has been harmed. Like the famous ‘Settlers of Catan’, where sheep is seen as a commodity. Or the game called ‘Sheriff of Nottingham’ where you are smuggling chickens.”
But the narrative of the games can easily be changed to veganise them. When I played the game Settlers of Catan, we do not call the resource “sheep” as food from the settlers’ farm, but as residents of an animal sanctuary. Ian talks more about such changes:
“I have games that I adjusted to be more vegan. For example, I have an old copy of the ‘London game’, which you compete to visit tourist locations you get on cards. And one of the locations is Harrods. And I wrote on it to join the anti-fur protest. And make it clear that milk in a game is soya milk. Literally writing it on the card. Occasionally, when the narrative of the game is not vegan and can be made vegan by only changing the text of embedded carnist assumptions, then I do that.
I would definitely buy a version of ‘Chrononauts’ about the history of veganism, but there isn’t a market yet, so we have to create it. I quite like thematic games where there is an attempt to make a story embedded in the narrative. There are probably quite a few ‘Eurogames’ that could be reframed with the vegan theme, but those are not the ones I necessarily play. There is a game called ‘Aussie Animal Sanctuary’, which is a trivia game. There are a whole number of hidden role games, like ‘Avalon’, where it wouldn’t be very difficult to model the interactions between animal activists and infiltrators in the 1990’s UK where you easily find yourself as a protest with more infiltrators than actual protesters. There are definitely interesting takes on existing genres which might be fairly straightforward adoption. And there are games like ‘Wingspan’ that are very much about animals.
Throughout my life, I have had a go at designing a few games based on animal protection. I even created a new version of chess especially suitable for vegans. I posted the rules on Facebook and several people played it. If you want to try it, this is what I posted:
VEGAN CHESS ANYONE?
Are there any vegan chess players here that would like to try a new game of vegan chess I invented, to see if it is feasible and works? Here are the rules:
1. You can only play it with boards and pieces that don’t contain animal products (including glues) or tropical woods (for the environmental vegans).
2. The objective is no longer to kill your opponent’s king but to protect your two horses (which is how we call the Knights now) from being taken (killed) by your opponent.
3. You win when your horses can no longer be killed first, or your opponent gives up trying.
4. All the pieces retain all the qualities and moves of regular chess, except for horses, who now cannot take other horses.
5. In a tournament you get one point for a win, and two points for a draw if your last move made the killing of your two horses and your opponent’s two horses impossible from then on.
6. All the remaining rules are the same as regular chess.
It would be great if any of you could try this and tell me if it works (software engineers are welcome to design a computer simulation for this).
Someone tried it today at the Brixton GeekstraVEGANza, and it seems it works!
Another connection I found is food. Contrary to many other hobbies or sports, you can play board games while eating. Therefore, this may be a problem for a vegan playing with non-vegans, as having to see — and smell — bits of dead animals around the table is something that can easily ruin a game. How are you going to guarantee that will not happen? Only if you play with other vegans in vegan venues. And if you own a vegan venue, you want vegans to come and stay for hours ordering lots of food, so you will ensure your establishment is boardgamers friendly. It’s easier for a group of vegan boardgamers to find vegan-friendly places to play than for a group of vegan theatre goers to find a vegan-friendly theatre to go, for example.
The Vegan Boardgamers Phenomenon
This is just a blog, not a doctoral thesis, so I did not expect to find any definitive evidence that the vegan boardgamer phenomenon is something culturally special and socially significant. I just wanted to give some thought to this issue to see if I can understand it better. Through this process, we have found many potential connections between boardgamers and vegans.
Firstly, the social aspect of meeting up with like-minded people face-to-face which is still something many vegans desperately look for — if they are still the only vegan in whatever group they normally are living or working in. Tired of always having to give explanations and check everything is suitable for them, they gravitate toward accessible social activities where they no longer have to do that and can relax with trivial play.
Secondly, the fact that some vegans and members of the geek culture may be inclined to go against the grain and conventions of society, while their groups are now becoming more mainstream at the same time. This would facilitate meeting each other. The simultaneous expansion of their respective niches makes it more likely that the first “external” group they interact with is the other “unconventional” sister group.
Thirdly, the element of consistency and logic that is present in the psyche of many vegans and board gamers. Applying the “rules” at all times without excuses or cheats. When you play any game, the behaviour of the piece that represents you — your avatar, if you will — is set by the rules, in the same way, the philosophy of veganism sets what is the acceptable behaviour a vegan can perform. In this complex scary multifactorial world, being among those who follow the same rules as you to make it look simple and more benign is both satisfying and soothing.
Fourthly, both vegans and board gamers are social pioneers who like to explore new things. They have a playful approach to life. Having learnt they can set themselves free from the constraints of the carnist indoctrination they grew up under, they are now explorers of “alternative” worlds. Both in real life with the alternative products and services they now use, but also in play with the alternative universes board gaming provides.
Fifthly, because through the act of playing games one discovers our playing essence, our primitive self, and this is what vegans are also doing when they try to remove the “artificial” carnist indoctrination society has soiled them with. If based on human physiology, morphology, and psychology, we look for the true nature of humanity, we may find the “vegan human”. We may find the primordial Eve in the vegan paradise. We may realise Homo sapiens is Homo veganus, who is also Homo ludens. The flatness of the simple board game is a mirror where each of these true natures can see each other better.
Sixthly, we have the vegan-friendly nature of board games themselves which do not contain animal products and the narratives can be easily veganised. This makes it easier for new vegans to keep their hobby. And finally, the rise of vegan food and vegan venues becoming logistical catalysts for the rise of vegan board gaming.
Considering all this, I believe there is such a phenomenon as the rise of the vegan boardgamer community, and I would dare to predict that, pandemics permitting, it will keep raising until sceptics that may not quite see it now may begin accepting it as “a real thing”.
But I believe in this phenomenon not only because of the number of connections we have found that may indeed be contributing to it. I think there is a much deeper and stronger connection that I detect in myself when I look at both worlds of veganism and board gaming: I am an active ethical vegan. I am the kind of vegan that is playing the vegan game in real life trying to get to the vegan world. I am a vegan in a socio-political transformative movement with a clear objective and goal. I am a vegan in a carnist world overcoming many obstacles and facing many trials and challenges. I am a vegan joining other vegans using different tactics to see who get more significant results first. I am on a difficult and exciting quest to build the vegan world, one step at a time. As a vegan immersed in the biggest adventure humanity has invented, I am a player of the biggest game of all. The game that, if we lose, everyone loses everything.
Antonio mentioned something interesting. Perhaps we could design a game where different vegans use different strategies to get to the vegan world, but only when they all work together using all the tactics available, they achieve the objective. A cooperative game we all can play.
Perhaps this is it. By trying to find what boardgamers and vegans have in common, we have discovered the nature of the vegan movement itself. It’s a three-dimensional multiplayer complex game we need to win, as the stakes are very high for everyone. Maybe if we play many minor board games, we may learn how to win in this major one. Perhaps board gaming is our strategic and tactic training ground.
Deep down, I feel a strong connection between vegans and boardgamers. We are not observers anymore. We are no longer passive spectators of the drama of animal exploitation and environmental destruction. We are active players who need to learn how to win with our actions and choices.
I get it now. We are all gamers, but we, vegans, have already started playing “the great game”.
Don’t’ just watch. We need everyone to win it.