‘Bureaucracy’ Board Game, 1981

Exhibit / March 31, 2017

Object Name: Bureaucracy
Maker and Year: Avalon Hill, 1981
Object Type: Board game
Image source: Board Game Geek
Description: (K.E. Roberts)

In Avalon Hill’s Bureaucracy, players attempt to “simulate the bureaucratic behavior which constitutes so much of what we call government” and “[rise] up through the masses” to become Director, which amounts to marching around a Monopoly-style game board seeking promotion. Each player chooses a lifestyle—Empire Builder, Hustler, Lifer, and Over Achiever—and each lifestyle has different “prerequisites” for promotion. An Empire Builder needs “Staff,” a Hustler needs “Contacts,” and so on. The cards dealt are tailored to the personality of each lifestyle: where the Lifer gets steady but middling rewards, the Hustler goes boom or bust—bust amounting to demotion, scandal, power play, or sentencing to a “Grievance Committee.” Interestingly, the instructions contain a “Salary Table” for each position in the bureaucratic hierarchy. The lowest paid position, Staff Assistant, makes $8,000 a year, while the Deputy Director makes $35,000—about $94,000 in today’s money.

While the game is a tongue-in-cheek satire of the uncontrollable and unaccountable bloat now implicit in its title (the back of the box and one set of instructions is written in a Mad magazine-style screed), it wasn’t until the 1980s that “big government” and civil servants became synonymous with entrenched wastefulness. From the New Deal to the New Frontier to the Great Society, the expansion of federal programs addressing poverty, health care, public education, public arts and broadcasting, and environmental and consumer protections were (and still are, overall) extremely popular.

Bureaucracies, how they operate, and the put-upon slobs (John Yossarian, Willy Loman, Calvin Clifford, Benny Profane) enmeshed in their machinations are a longtime subject of American fascination, from the esoteric rituals of Freemasonry to the bestselling novels of Arthur Hailey and John Grisham. Vast, self-perpetuating administrative systems offer what most religions (some of them massive, insidious bureaucracies themselves) offer: a sense of permanence and security in an unpredictable and transient world.

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