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Daybreak, the board game about fighting climate change, is blindly optimistic

A sophisticated board game fueled by unending positivity

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A hand reaches out to raise the temperature in a game of Daybreak, moving a tan token across a blue section of the board. Photo: CMYK

Daybreak is the newest release from Pandemic creator Matt Leacock. He’s teamed up with co-designer Matteo Menapace and publisher CMYK (Monikers, Wavelength, Lacuna) to deliver a board game that is as optimistic as it is strategically compelling. Instead of racing to find a cure for global disease, players are tasked with working together to cut carbon emissions and stave off catastrophic climate change. The stakes are high as the world’s fate is racing toward cataclysm. While fun to play, the game ultimately leans more on fantasy than it does real-world approaches to solving a rapidly accelerating climate crisis.

One criticism regularly levied against Leacock is that, despite a lengthy career, his successes so far appear limited to an endless string of Pandemic clones. It’s a bit of a delight, therefore, to find that despite sharing the similar goal of using cooperation to save humanity from disaster, Daybreak plays almost nothing like Pandemic. This is an engine builder where players place cards into a personal tableau — a play area in front of you that contains your assortment of abilities. Cards feature technology and social policy, such as phasing out dirty electricity for clean, establishing high-speed rail, and building tree farms. In motion, the game retains all the urgency of combating a deadly virus but with a very different style of gameplay.

Each player represents a world power with a starting set of asymmetric abilities and varying levels of toxic output. Every turn, the group collectively pours pollution onto the board, piling ugly dark brown cubes up onto an otherwise beautifully composed world map. Over time, technology will reduce this dirty output and players will hopefully reach the end state known as “drawdown,” where fewer emissions are released by world powers than the planet itself can handle.

A game of Daybreak laid out on the table. Several dice and colorful tokens are spread on the table, with additional cards tucked in at the sides. Image: CMYK

The most interesting aspect of the core system is that cards can either be used for new abilities or for their listed tags. This tag system is vaguely reminiscent of similar engine builders such as Terraforming Mars or Ark Nova, but they’re more directly harnessed here for a core decision point that is uniquely gratifying. When you decide to play a card for its tags, you slip it behind one of your existing abilities to make it stronger. There is often a resulting boom in effectiveness that can cascade into other abilities and benefit the entire group.

Daybreak includes a great quantity of these project cards. Much of the game will be spent discussing with others what you should focus on and what strategic approach should be taken. The sheer volume of technological options can be dizzying, but it makes for a sandbox of societal improvement that allows for various avenues of exploration. Much of your effort is in mitigation, for both the recurring pollution as well as attempting to shield your people from the end-of-turn crisis events that randomly exert pressure. The world falls apart over time, with increasing temperatures begetting more wild swings in global crises. In this way, the game is a race to construct a more effective engine before the cascading environmental decay is out of control.

Daybreak’s most impactful quality is its societal commentary. It offers a clear picture on how we can solve monumental challenge through human ingenuity and partnership. Despite this unbridled optimistic view, it’s hard to deny that much of this game could be described as fantasy. The clarity of structures found in the format of a board game in no way parallels the deeply troubled complexity of our world. In fact, Daybreak makes it clear that to accomplish such an arduous task requires the absence of hurdles such as opposing financial incentives and human egoism.

But we cannot lose hope, and Daybreak is a wonderful blueprint to aspire to.

Daybreak will be released in November. The game was reviewed using a pre-release copy provided by publisher CMYK. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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