Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Serving Time on the River:The Harsh Realities of Prison Life
I am pretty sure it is the most unusual board game I have every played. It certainly is not the most fun, though I’m not sure it is even trying to be. It is also probably the most genuine, thoughtful game I have ever played. Serving Time on the River: The Harsh Realities of Prison Life is a game in which the players all take on the role of an inmate serving time in the infamous Angola prison in Louisiana. The goal is nothing other than making it to the end of your sentence and surviving to see the outside world again. Of course there are a seemingly limitless amount of problems to confront you along the way and make your stay in prison a permanent one.
The game was created in 1991 by Roscoe Jones, an inmate in the very facility in which the game takes place. Jones came up with the game while in solitary confinement for eleven years (while serving a life sentence) and with the help of some guards and administrative staff he was able to produce the game and have it sold on the outside. The game itself is clearly homemade; the cover appears to be colored with pencils, all the text on the board is printed out and glued on, and I’m pretty sure that the built in spinners are filed down plastic utensils. Jones says that each game takes him about 2 hours to make.
Roscoe’s interest in the subject matter is clearly personal and the level of authenticity he brings to the game makes it as much a social education tool as a diversionary game. Created by a man who is spending the rest of his life in prison, the game certainly has a cynical (though probably very accurate) view of Corrections. Example, one of the playable inmates is named Eugene Fisher and has a capital death penalty. He has no chance of being released from prison so for the player the game is essentially a futile exercise is running out the string on his life. Players are encouraged to randomly choose which inmate they will be playing; the group ranges from drug offenders to aggravated rapists to murderers.
Life on the River itself is a pretty straightforward game in which the players move around the perimeter of the board and land on different spaces, each with a different function. Most of the squares represent the passage of time and give points to the inmate, with the goal of the game being to accumulate enough “time” to have your sentence expire. Unfortunately there are also numerous other squares that have such heartwarming titles as Suicide, Killed in Prison, and Died in Prison. Any of these squares end the game immediately for that player, though they are encouraged to get back in the game with a new, randomly selected inmate from the remaining list. Along the way there are some rewards that may come your way (a cup of coffee, or a boy-gal moving into your cell), harsh realities (Use-you-up, and HIV positive), and rehab programs (church, and self help groups). In addition to having their sentence expire, an inmate can also win by scoring an early release through parole.
None of the positive endings seem all that likely considering that the first time I played the game with three friends we played for about two hours and eventually the game ended because all 12 inmates had died in prison without being released. Perhaps we were particularly unlucky, but I suspect that Roscoe Jones may be trying to tell us something. I feel awkward saying that the game was fun, especially considering the subject matter and the origin of the game. But I feel that Roscoe would appreciate more the fact that we all discussed life in prison while playing his game and probably learned something from it. He says in the introduction that the main reason he created the game was to serve as a deterrent to crime.
The board is signed and dated by Jones and with the game he enclosed some photocopied information about his life in prison. It also included a hand written note thanking me for the purchase and some questions. There also appears to be no record of this game existing anywhere on the internet so hopefully this review will at least let people know that it exists.