So, you know how Monopoly is an objectively terrible game? What if I told you there was a version that took significantly less time, that was actually good, and that gave all the players a moment of visceral yet educational horror? My friends, you want to play Black Wall Street.
Black Wall Street at first looks startlingly like Monopoly with a roll-and-move track around the outside, stacks of cash, cards to draw in the middle, multi-colored properties to buy or—wait—rent? This is the first seismic shift that makes the game zip along: when you land on a property, you can buy it of course, or you can rent it for significantly cheaper. But either way, you have to pay something. Money flows through the community like a river with all players constantly spending. There’s a constant give-and-take that makes the game lively, even as funds become scarcer for everyone involved. The properties that you can bundle together into limited liability companies or corporations are not situated adjacent to each other either, which helpfully limits the chances of losing everything when you come upon Cousin Eli’s massive real estate district.
These shifts may not seem that huge, but we all know Monopoly is based entirely around the rich getting richer, rarely spending their money, and the poor getting steadily and more resentfully poorer. Now that I think about it, Monopoly is awfully descriptive of our actual system. But I digress.
More than all this, Black Wall Street upends Monopoly with the drawing of a single “community chest”-style card, pulled directly from the game’s theme: the Tulsa Riot. It reads, “You are a survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Riots but your businesses have been destroyed. Return all properties to the bank with no payment.”
Did you get that? Every player. Loses every property.
The game continues, but you’re all left reeling. Could it have been avoided? Could we have prepared better? How is this fair? How do we move on from this point? For a tabletop game—this moment is heavier than I could have expected. And you have no way of knowing when in the game it’ll come up. Unbalanced you say? It sure is. Unfair to people trying to strategize? Entirely true. Communal experience of loss? Precisely the point. Just flipping through the draw cards to find it so I had the right verbiage for this article made me anxious.
Black Wall Street isn’t just an excellent re-formulation of a classic game, it’s a powerful teaching tool. The United States just recently observed the 100 year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, the day a white militia (including members of law enforcement) destroyed 35 city blocks of the Greenwood area of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This area was often called “Black Wall Street” because of the singular prosperity the Black community had created for themselves there. Three hundred people died, 800 were injured, some 6000 held in an internment camp for up to 8 days. This was also the first aerial assault on American soil, long before Pearl Harbor. The businesses named on the game board were actual Greenwood businesses at the time.
We can’t now conceive of the sheer brutality, the careless racism, the mass terror of this attack—we weren’t there, of course, but also our gaming community is overwhelmingly white and we have never had this kind of hatred directed at us. How frivolous it must seem for me to say that turning over this one card gives me a sense of that moment: it can’t. And yet it reflects to me a moment in history that I was never taught about in school, it shows me the lengths people with power will go to protect what they think they’re entitled to.
There are a lot of games out there about Black history (I’m thinking particularly about Freedom: The Underground Railroad) or about peoples of color around the world and I’m glad there’s more care being taken around these themes than there once was, but you might notice that most of them are designed by white folks. The peoples whose histories are being explored in the games are not benefitting from its purchase. Now, I know money isn’t the only answer to racism in all its forms, but it’s definitely a helpful one. What if we, as a hobby community, intentionally invested in Black designers, Black production companies, Black reviewers? What if we valued their voices and experiences enough to back their Patreons indefinitely or to drop $40 or $50 on a game we’ve never played like we so often do on Kickstarter or at our FLGS? Or is it just me who does that… I don’t mean just in passing, either, though every one of those purchases helps. I mean on purpose, regularly researching who’s out there doing the work and supporting them.
The Black-owned and operated company behind Black Wall Street spends a ton of their time beyond gaming, educating young people about money management and entrepreneurship. All of their materials, including the rulebook for the game, teach players about Tulsa and about Black-owned businesses. Their website encourages gamers to go deeper, to do our own research, and to step up. And their game calls all your beliefs about strategy and merit into question, crushes your soul, and is unequivocally fun to play.