James Thinks

writing is a kind of thinking

As I'm interested in ways to communicate about the climate crisis, I was excited to see the idea for a new board game on this theme.

Daybreak's website describes it as follows:

"Daybreak is a cooperative boardgame about stopping climate change. It is an unapologetically hopeful vision of the near future, where you and your friends get to build the mind-blowing technologies and resilient societies we need to save the planet."

So, in September 2022, I chipped in to the Backerkit funder for Daybreak. I wasn't the only one to be excited by this concept. The game's crowdfunders contributed six times the funding target and it has received above-average reviews on Board Games Geek, in spite of some early teething problems.

I received the game late December 2023 and since then I've played it several times, both solo and in various groups of four.

Look and feel

Five stacks of local project cards, showing, Clean Energy Investments, Soil Education, Women and Girls Education, Wellbeing budget and Grid Enhancing Tech.

The game has consciously reduced environmental impact in its production, presumably to avoid accusations of hypocrisy. It's made entirely without plastic or environmentally-intensive textiles, using cardboard from FSC certified forests. It's not perfect, but it's better than most and a nice touch that helps make people think. Why isn't everything done this way?

The artwork on each card is compelling and really brings the game to life, almost as much as PARKS whose subject matter itself provides inspiring vistas.

Dirty energy tokens are brown, but can be flipped to reveal a green side. The tags that feature on every card are pretty intuitive and easy to recognise after a short time playing the game. To help with the learning curve, each player gets an info card naming the tags and showing how common the card is. For example, local projects featuring nuclear tags are rare at 5%, while regulation tags feature on 23% of cards.

Player board showing Six dirty energy tokens and three clean plus other emission sources. Below are shield tokens for social, ecological and infrastructure resilience.

There's a temptation to simply min-max mathematical solutions which is tempered by players' affinity for a particularly inspiring card. These competing aspects are part of what makes the game immersive and interesting.

Game mechanics

Players in Daybreak represent one of up-to four world powers or regions - USA, China, Europe or Majority World. They each have different starting cards, emissions profiles and growth rates. As the game progresses, emissions lead to rising temperatures which result in more frequent crises which have a variety of negative consequences for people and planet. If the temperature reaches two degrees above pre-industrial averages, all players lose. If any player has more than twelve communities in crisis, all players lose.

Players win by collectively reaching drawdown which is the point at which more greenhouse gases are being removed from the atmosphere than added.

Three cards with active tokens on them: International Disaster Response Force, Agricultural Best Practices and (blurry) Loss and Damage Fund.

Like Wingspan, Terraforming Mars and Pandemic, Daybreak is a card-driven building game. Each round players collectively choose a global project, then accumulate stacks of local project cards with matching "tags" to increase their utility.

Card showing wind turbines on grassy coastline showing tag icons for wind turbine and energy plug. QR code and requirements also shown.

For example, a player might use the local project card "Small Scale Onshore Wind".

When placed on top of one of a player's five stacks, this card would replace any local project underneath. If the stack already had two pylon (grid) tags then this new project could be used immediately. If not, those grid cards could later be tucked underneath to activate it.

Once activated, the local project provides an additional green energy token each round, per wind tag. As the card itself only comes with one tag, it's not of huge value on its own, but tucking additional wind tagged cards underneath can generate additional green energy each round.

Card showing community sharing goods and supporting-hands tag indictating minus one house for two to four tags and minus two for five or more. Limit is once per round.

Another card that is very helpful is the Degrowth Movement.

In Daybreak, every player's energy demand rises each turn due to growth in both population and consumption. Players need to keep their energy supply up to meet this or have communities fall into crisis. The degrowth card allows players to reduce their overall demand, if they have built up enough society tags in this stack. This can be an alternative to growing large amounts of renewable energy. This leaves more resources left to reduce emissions.

Other cards allow players to draw additional cards, share cards with other players, add resilience, restore nature and so on. More gameplay details can be found on the Daybreak "How to Play" page. You can also play Daybreak online or watch others play on Board games arena.

The box says it takes 60-90 minutes to play, but if you are all new to the game it can take twice as long. When the board and all the cards are laid out, a fairly large table is needed.

Player board showing nine communities in crisis, Global Crop Failures crisis card, local projects: clean cookstoves and methane removal.

Strategy

I'm no expert, but this is what I've learned so far from playing Daybreak.

  • Co-operation is essential. It would be a a poorly-designed co-operative game if working together didn't provide an advantage. While the global project is the only thing which is explicitly a collective decision, good players will look to see what others need. It's not always possible to share cards directly, but there are plenty of opportunities to provide resilience to other players or save their communities in crisis.

  • Play to your strengths. At the start of the game each region has different starting cards. For example Europe can build a stack that will provide resilience to any player, or remove communities in crisis for any player. Meanwhile the USA can donate local project cards to other players, who may be in need of a crucial tag to empower their stack. China starts with the Green Tech Exports card allowing them to give renewable energy from their board to others. Sometimes this is very useful, but it depends on whether China gets other cards allowing them to rapidly scale their green energy beyond their own needs.

  • Be opportunistic. The global and local project cards are dealt randomly, so sometimes they don't fit with your plans. If you can keep a variety of tags across your stack then you should be able to make use of most cards. Whether you reduce your emissions, restore wetlands or plant more trees has the same effect in the long run, so do what you can or see who else you can help.

  • Get more cards. It's a huge bonus if players can draw additional local projects each turn, especially if they have a mechanism to donate them to other players.

  • Think long-term. If you're choosing between a card which will remove your transport emissions and one which will phaseout dirty energy, think about which you have more of and whether you can play something over the stack once that emission source is removed. Not all cards are equal. Some scale well with additional stacks, some can only be used once per turn.

  • Prioritise emission source reduction. A single source of emissions you remove in round one will prevent emissions in every round that follows. That not only brings you closer to drawdown, but gives you more time to get there and reduces the chances of fatal crises on the way.

  • Gaining resilience is good too, but might not provide any immediate benefit. It's worth thinking about what crises might be coming and whether all regions can cope with the worst-case scenario - see below.

Four Crisis cards showing, Energy Crisis, Healthcare Crisis, Heatwaves, Infrastructure meltdowns.

Climate education

I love that the game relates to the real world. Every card describes a realistic project that has either been implemented, or is likely to start somewhere in the world. There's a QR code on the corner of each card describing not only the nuances of game play, but the real-world reasoning behind the project and some links to news or research explaining the advantages and risks of each idea.

My impression is that agricultural emissions, shown in the game by the cow icon, are under-represented, given that they account for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions. There are only a few cow tokens overall on players' boards, but a great many energy tokens. Much of what is done in the game focuses on energy generation which is perhaps understandable as it's a big part of the puzzle and probably easier to model. However, it's nice to see ideas like Women and Girls' Education, reforestation and Cloud Brightening being represented.

What's more, it seems like the safest and most obvious cards are easy to choose, but some, like Global Solar Radiation Management have serious real-world risks attached, which are represented in the game as a having to draw additional crisis cards.

Conclusion

For those who haven't played similar board games, the learning curve of Daybreak may be steep initially. However, as it's a collaborative board game, it's fine to help each other out and learn as you go. In the groups I've played with, we've won about half the time. I think with practice it's possible to win maybe 60% of games. As with many good board games, there's an element of strategy and some luck involved. If you get a series of terrible cards, the game can be very difficult. There is enough realism not to let players win too easily, but that means it can be rather dispiriting when temperatures spiral out of control and multiple crises hit regions that are already struggling. Investing more than two hours of your time and witnessing the end of the world is not only disappointing, but a little scary.

That said, there's much to recommend Daybreak. I found it educational and fun. It's hugely rewarding to build a stack of cards which suddenly enables transformative change, or to realise that a small action on your part can save another region from calamity. In my opinion the attendees at COP should have to play Daybreak for the first day, each picking a region which is not their own. Sounds silly, but board games have been used to encourage co-operation in difficult negotiations and goodness knows we need to try something new!

If you're interested in playing Daybreak, you can buy it from publishers CMYK, or play online at Board Games Arena.

Category: Environment
Photo credit: James
Mugshot of James cycling on a road in the sunshine.

James Bradbury

I write about whatever is on my mind. I do so mostly to help me think more clearly. If other people find it interesting that's good too. :-)

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The artwork on each card is compelling and really brings the game to life

Emissions lead to rising temperatures which result in more frequent crises

Energy demand rises each turn due to growth in both population and consumption

Much of the game focuses on energy generation