Who Wants To Solve California’s Water Crisis? A Role-Playing Game Will Test Your Political Skills

A new board game lets you channel your inner politician and see if you can please all the people fighting over every last drop.

Solving California’s water woes is as much about messy politics as it is about praying for rain. As the future gets hotter and drier, the state is trying to figure out how to manage dwindling water and deliver it to everyone who wants it, including growing cities and desperate farmers. Now a new board game lets players channel their inner Jerry Brown: How do you keep everyone happy when there isn’t enough rain to go around?


“There’s a lot of information out there, but the drought isn’t so much about pieces of information as a whole system,” says designer Alfred Twu, who created California Water Crisis, the game. “I thought a game would be a really good way to help people understand how systems work.”

In it, players pick a region–Northern California versus SoCal versus the farm-filled Central Valley–and then roll the dice to see how much rain the state will get. Like the state’s actual water management, it’s played by season, and the goal is to keep voters happy, not solve the drought.

“I set it up that way because it reflects reality,” Twu says. “At the end of the day, water is just one of the many things that we have to deal with. You can’t look at the water system in isolation from everything else.”

Players can spend money on other public projects–say, improving a university or hospital or public transit–or cut taxes. At the same time, they send water to cities and farms and try to build better water infrastructure, like new desalination plants or pipelines, or hire water cops to cut back on waste. They can choose to pump groundwater (which will eventually disappear), or negotiate with other players for their water rights. When farms run out of water, players stop getting taxes; when cities run out of water, approval ratings plummet. At the end of the game, the winner is the person with the highest approval.

It’s more complicated than a game like Monopoly; there are eight pages of instructions. But that reflects exactly how hard it is to actually manage water supply in a naturally dry environment with a huge population.

A variation called “The Bad Old Days” is a more competitive, Chinatown-era version. As the rules explain:


From the late 1800s to the early 20th century, the race is on between the different regions to become the center of Californian society. Water is abundant, often to the point of flooding. Monopolistic corporations duel with muckraking journalists. In this era before environmental impact reports, feel free to divert rivers or liquify mountains. Whether you earn it or steal it, do your region proud and get the water and cash to build up your reputation – or smear that of others.

In another variation set in the mid-21st century, farms have dried up and people have moved to cities. The game starts in a megadrought, with high food prices, a statewide housing crisis, and high electricity costs.

Twu, who has created previous issue-based games about high-speed rail and permaculture, and whose next game will focus on the housing crisis, thinks playing games can help people understand more than they might from reading the news.

“There’s a degree of interactivity and there’s also an empowerment of the audience,” he says. “If someone’s watching a movie, the outcome’s already determined. They’re kind of along for the ride and passive. But when someone’s playing a game, they get the feeling that the choices they make can actually affect the outcome. And the choices that other people are making can affect my choices and what the outcomes are. That kind of understanding is really useful for understanding political issues like the water crisis.”

The game is available to be printed on demand at The Game Crafter.


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.