Playtest Focus: Cartel

If you've managed to stay under the safety of a rock, let me congratulate you but also let you know that Cartel has hit Kickstarter and you should probably go check it out. I haven't had much time lately for genuinely playing many games. Between Breakout, Gen Con, Gauntlet Con, and Fan Expo, my plate is so full of con organizing that finding time to actually play games has been almost impossible. That being said, after reading and noticing all the hubbub around Cartel, I wanted to see for myself what the game was about.

Cartel is the newest game from Magpie, the company that brought us Epyllion, Masks, Urban Shadows, and most recently, Bluebeard's Bride. Each of these games packs a punch in terms of how comprehensible and inspiring the rules are. Cartel, from what I've read and seen, is no different and will make a stunning addition to the Magpie line up. The Kickstarter is evocative, the playbooks are beautiful, and the game itself hums with bits of Mexican culture infused into every aspect.

Unlike a lot of PbtA games where we are playing in fictional worlds where magic, cybertech, or other unrealistic things are happening, Cartel takes place in a world without the supernatural. Inspired by narcofiction like Breaking Bad and Narcos, the game pushes the players into the roles of members of the Mexican Cartel, surrounding them with the reality and high end drama of the drug trade and bloody business of the cartels. You don't get to opt out and be a "good guy" in this game. Each playbook is designed to put you in the thick of it.

Before I dive in, I need to preface this all with something I've noticed a lot in our gaming community and something I've seen called out and felt I was part of the problem in. Last year at Gen Con I was sitting in on a panel about playing characters that don't look like us. I felt, pointedly, the panel was directed at those of us white, able bodied, cis folks who often hesitate to play someone who doesn't look like us because, well, for a few reasons. One being we don't know enough about the lived experience of someone else to really feel like we can play the character with any integrity. Two being we are worried we'll fuck it up and offensive. And the worst reason, I find, is because we just don't want to because we haven't noticed the diversity problem yet (hint: there's a diversity problem).

Now, here's a spoiler: You don't play white people in Cartel. You play Mexican people. With Mexican names. In a game that has Spanish throughout it, including the name of playbooks, clothing, and your gigs. While this may make many white people uncomfortable, let me assure you, the game isn't beyond your scope of roleplaying. If you can play a 1930's detective fighting an elder god with dragon wings and a tentacle face, you can handle playing someone who doesn't look like you. I promise. Odds are, you're already playing people that don't look like you, but are playing people who do tap into your fantasy fulfillment on some level. I know I don't look like any of my characters, but I wouldn't complain if I looked more like them. Fantasy fulfillment's funny that way.

But so few of us fantasize about being a different race or ethnicity. Why? Because us white folks have on a very specific lens of how the world works. Namely, that it works in our favour and we don't see the subtle and small and sometimes large ways it doesn't. While Cartel doesn't (in so far as I can see through the one time I've played it) directly tackle the systemic issue of white people only seeing through our white lens, it does offer us an invitation to buy in to playing Mexican people in horrible circumstances. The invitation is really pretty. It's well written. And it's to a kind of party you've never attended before. But because Cartel doesn't have the background of a fantasy world, as we're not playing Redgaurds in Skyrim, it makes people, as I've seen it, a little uncomfortable and a little uneasy.

Why? Because there's no perceived safety hatch for those of us who have never or who have rarely played a person of colour. I mean sure, Cartel has an x-card and talks about safety and offers you a buy in of what you'll be doing and who you'll be playing. But the quickstart doesn't come with instructions on how to be Mexican. This is a bullshit reason not to play the game or try it out. It's a bullshit reason to avoid any game. You are welcome to feel as you want about a game that tackles a current issue, like the Cartels, and turns it into a game, but you don't get to say you don't want to play because you have to play Mexican people. No dice.

Cartel played so differently than I had thought it would. I had picked up the original aschan edition of Cartel a couple years ago at Jiffy Con. While I glanced through it, like many people who look like me, I put it down thinking the game wasn't for me. Not because I don't like narcofiction (I don't), but because the idea of running a game about another culture make me uncomfortable (mostly for reasons of worrying about fucking it up). Plus? The game is brutal. There's a level of violence and emotional trauma happening that makes me pull back. As much as I say I love playing high impact games, violence really makes me take a step backwards. And Cartel is violent.

But it's not just violent. It's so much more than that. As I sat down to play with Mark Diaz Truman, the creator, as well as several of my amazing podcasting friends (Rach Shelkey, Rich Rogers, and Phil Vecchione), I had no expectations other than it would probably be a good game because Mark's a good GM. I loaded up my quickstart, skimmed through the playbooks, and selected three I thought were interesting. Mark suggested I take La Narca (El Narco in the quickstart) because the playbook was the hardholder and would set us in the middle of the action. It was so far out of my comfort zone I couldn't say no.

As I circled some options and assigned some stats, I noticed just how much Spanish is in the game. I googled a couple words to figure out how they translated, so I could choose my clothing options. I loved that my name list felt genuine and right for the setting. And I dug that most of the additional moving parts on my sheet, like Llaves (keys) were in Spanish as well. The game wasn't just pretending to be influenced by Mexican culture. Parts of Mexican culture, like language, art style, and religion, were baked into the game. It was a nice, slow introduction to a culture I had learned about in high school as I studied Spanish, but knew that some of my friends had never even considered.

I ended up with La Narca, a powerful woman who had taken over the family business when her husband had been given the opportunity and flinched. She figured it was better to keep your family safe as the one in charge than live as a potential victim all your life. Phil played my husband, a man who's manliness was under constant question by my character and by her associates. The stone cold killer was played by Rich, and the two-timing cop was played by Rach. We created our characters and set up our relationships, answering hard questions about why we were in the cartel, how we lived (many of us were very poor), and how our cartel functioned.

The buy in from here was easy. Once I got the lay of the land, which the quickstart broke down for me (and I shamefully didn't read before game), I began to understand a lot more of how my plaza functioned, and why I should not be afraid of the police but definitely should be afraid of los federales. I also got an immediate lesson in gender politics from the set up of having the leader of the plaza be a woman and her husband be the soft one. So much of our play centred on handling gender politics in a heavily violent setting. It was a high pressure game. You start with pressure and you end with pressure, which is what I expected from the fiction that partially inspired the game. You aren't the necessary good guys, and thus, people want you to stop what you're doing.

What I didn't expect though? Mechanized abuse. As I publicly shamed my husband for being less than a man, Mark looked at me and asked if I was verbally abusing or shaming someone. I blinked, stunned, that a game would mechanize emotional abuse. It's not something I've seen often other that in games that are exploring that topic. In any game, if you make a mechanic for it, you're exploring that. Cartel doesn't shy away from acknowledging that a lot of abuse is happening. Drug abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse... hell, three of the four Stress moves are abuses. It blew my mind that a game would own that bullshit, call it abuse, and acknowledge how much of a role these things have in the society it was talking about. In fact, the only Stress move that isn't abusive is confessing your sins to a priest, which is feeding back into community and healing. Yes please.

Besides Stress moves, Cartel has Heat moves and Drug moves. The Drug moves are there to tell you how you respond to the drug you're taking based on the drug. It's a fascinating way to mechanize a conversation around drug use and what it does to ourselves, but also how it impacts our relationships. Heat moves are there to set up crime drama for the fiction. You can leave a messy crime scene or avoid suspicion. We didn't get a chance to use the Heat moves, but I can just see how easy it would be to let these moves snowball the fiction and to keep the tension on the characters' decisions. It's a beautiful game just waiting for you to fuck up.

When you fuck up? Well, the world is a harsh place and there's someone always waiting to tear you down. I could definitely feel the pressure as my brother lost his shit and tried to strangle me in a fit of rage. I felt the pressure to be strong, formidable, and dangerous, more so because I was a woman in a world of deadly men. There was definitely a feeling of living on the edge, stuck between thriving (after all, I had money) and death or worse. For those I called my associates, life was harder. They needed help or favours and those always came at a cost. There were people they were protecting, like children and loved ones, and people they had run away from. Even before play began there was a sense of tenuous community built around the need to survive with the goal to thrive.

To me, it reminded me of Ozark with the stakes amped up and about people who weren't white for once. My family was always in trouble. I was always trying to save the people I loved even if I didn't like them or want to help them. They mattered more than anyone else. I was faced with constant decisions to sell out people who trusted me to get ahead or to try to find ways to resolve things that weren't dependent on violence. Except, well, I failed. A lot. And things spiralled. And ended in violence. My closing scene was my brother choking me until I smacked him in the head brutally with a rock, while my children watched, and saw me for the monster I was. It was the move that hurt the most. I was letting them see what they would become. And in that moment of brilliance, generational trauma was quietly acknowledged.

Cartel's basic moves are solid and well written. It's clear what you're supposed to be doing. My favourite is Justify Your Behaviour. Because fuck knows when we do shitty things we use that move constantly in real life. I could abuse someone and then justify my behaviour and legitimately feel better about myself before I went to talk to an assassin about killing my husband. That was a thing the fiction allowed me to do and the way that was normalized and held to in the rules was eye opening and upsetting. Of course people who are living and growing up in an abusive world think this is normal.

What Cartel does that is fascinating is calls that world violent and abusive. It doesn't shy away from how horrible these people are. They are literally using a stat called Savagery to size each other up (expose a weakness) and tear each other apart (turn to violence). The game is about money, where you strain your finances to get small wins, and how often you come up lacking and needing to do an awful job to get that money. Trapped. In a toxic cycle.

Don't get me wrong, the game is entertaining and I had an amazing time. I couldn't stop talking about it with my fellow players for awhile. Every character was rich and gave me life. Phil and I kept trying to find a way to keep playing our characters. The dynamic growth most of the characters had in one three hour session was fantastic. It's impressive, incredible game design and pushes PbtA in new, fascinating directions. It's one of the first games to set itself in a current issue that is causing real harm and death in our world, and it's one of just a few games to address harmful cycles, abuse, and systemic issues without making the game feel like it's just about those issues.

I had backed Cartel originally because I thought a game by a Mexican American designer about Mexicans was important. After I played the game and read the quickstart, I was excited to say I backed it and couldn't wait to get my hands on it. Besides the wonderful game play, the game is fucking stunning. At least, the quickstart is and everything on the Kickstarter page is. It's gorgeous. Go back this, go play this, and challenge yourself to dig deep into the mechanics of what's going on and what the game is discussing.

As for the controversy around this game, well, my opinion on that doesn't matter. I'm white as cake and I can't weigh into a conversation I don't belong in. I can say that I found Cartel's recognizable PbtA system, mechanics, and art work gave me an easy buy-in for playing a game that is not about white people, and I think that games that aren't about white experiences are important. Conversations around games created by and about PoC are important, as is supporting them and seeing them become normal in our gaming community. Cartel and Ki Khanga shouldn't be the exceptions. They should be just two of many, many PoC focused games. But they aren't, and that's inherently part of the problem.

So dig in, amigo. And get ready for a Mexican narofiction telenovela story that will make your little nerd heart hurt in all the happiest ways.