Fixing the ‘Sushi-Jalapeno War’ (For Some Reason)

A look at rules, narrative, and a time capsule of 1994

By Joe Fonseca. Originally Published on ‘OveractiveAcademic’ in 2019

The Box Art that Started it All

Sushi-Jalapeno War: What is this and why am I here?

Last January I undertook a strange assignment for wargamer.com, playing and writing a ‘Weird Wargames’ feature on Xeno Games’ 1994 release, Sushi-Jalapeno War. What started as a playthrough of a crazy game with crazy rules and crazy background would become something of a personal quest for myself and a friend.

I had found Sushi-Jalapeno War the year beforeon a dusty shelf at the back of a Calgary hobby shop. It stopped me in my tracks with its garish box art, offensive title, and undeniably cheap price tag. I was still just dabbling in board wargames and I had really no idea what was good or bad at the time. I had a hunch about Sushi-Jalapeno War though. I mean, look at it.

Bringing it home and checking online brought me few answers. The little discussion I could find revolved around its unplayability and a few requests from collectors looking for it. I was convinced that I had something ‘interesting’ at least. And that was it. The blindingly 90’s GI JOE-style box sat on my office shelf earning its keep as a conversation piece for my colleagues or any students that wandered in for office hours. I knew I’d have to play it someday, but as someone just getting started wargaming with card and paper, I knew better than to stumble blindly into that minefield as my first attempt.

By winter 2018 I had been writing for wargamer.com for a few months and was on the prowl for a new feature topic. Then, like the rumblings of some Jumanji demon, Sushi-Jalapeno War called to me. I decided, or was compelled to decide, that it was finally time to crack the rulebook and figure out how to play.

The game map. Notice the separate Pacific Coast Conference, Unified South American Union, and the Independent Texas

Turns out, it is actually unplayable. The rulebook before me was filled with so many internal contradictions, references to rules that were never explained, reference charts with competing values for the same things, and spelling and grammatical errors that made what rules that were there difficult to parse. The only thing that remained coherent was the timeline at the back describing the narrative for the game. I’ll return to that in a moment.

The mind-bending rules didn’t stop me of course. My friend and willing victim took the dive with me and, as planned, we set up Sushi-Jalapeno War at 2:00am on New Years Day. We’re party animals, I know. But we had a good time adding and changing rules on the fly to be able to push pieces around the table for a couple hours. It was, of course, the best wargame we’d played all year. I wrote the wargamer.com piece, I’m pretty sure people liked it, and I shelved Sushi-Jalapeno War, thinking it would sit there forever.

Except of course I couldn’t put it away forever…the beating of that infernal Jumanji demon returned…to us both.

The fictive start of the Sushi-Jalapeno War was November 19, 2019. Funnily enough, we managed to play the game in the year it was actually set, totally by accident. But then we got to thinking. What if we played it again, say in 323 days? Well then, we’d be the only people in the world, we wagered, to fight the Sushi-Jalapeno War on the day that the Sushi-Jalapeno War erupted. It’s kind of like watching Back to the Future on October 21, 2015, only somehow nerdier.

The miniatures are interesting. They appear to be extras from the game Fortress America.

So, we decided that’s what we would do, though we’d make sure there was actually a game to play this time.

The New and Improved Rules (Now actually playable!

So here we are. I’ve written, and my friend has edited, proofread, and fixed, a total rewrite of the Sushi-Jalapeno War rulebook from the ground up. It tries to keep the spirit of the original rules, where I could figure out what they were. This includes fleshing out the Electronic Warfare step, consolidates the Nuclear Attacks into one readable chart, clearing up the Command Point and cost issues, and generally creating a playable and completable game within the designated 2 hours. I can’t say it’s perfect, because it isn’t, but it represents what I feel is the best attempt at playing Sushi-Jalapeno War as the designer intended.

Here’s the Boardgamegeek.com link to the Sushi-Jalapeno Wars page where the new rules are available:

Board Game Geek Link

The Game’s Ridiculous (and historically interesting) Narrative

Sushi-Jalapeno War’s wonky premise is literally the only thing keeping it around. Even with our fixed rules, it’s a fairly standard 90’s area control wargame with variable action points. You push miniatures around a map, roll dice, add modifiers, and blow things up with tactical nukes.

It’s setting says more about the time in which it was written than anything, and acts as a sort of time capsule for bad 90’s jokes, racist characterizations, and worries about the future. This is all contained in the ‘Brief History Outline’ section at the end of the rulebook. I thought It’d be fun to point out some of the more interesting stops in the timeline to talk about. Remember, this was released in 1994, in America.

The event cards are… special. They try to continue the jokey nature of the game and are…definitely a product of their time. Definitely.
  • 7-20-2005: South American Union Forms consisting of every nation is South and Central America
    • While obviously quite the feat, Brazil, as a regional economic powerhouse, was promoting the idea of a united South America throughout the 1990s. This would develop after 2004 into the intergovernmental regional organization, the Union of South American Nations.
  • 10-27-2014: Wall Street Crashes leading to the collapse of the US Government.
    • Another Wall Street Crash in the 2000s seems to be a popular trope in the 1990s, but luckily for us the 2008 Financial Crisis didn’t lead to a collapsed and separated USA.
  • 8-5-2015: California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Hawaii, and Alaska form the Pacific Coast Conference after a year of internal instability and strife in the USA.
    • This leads to several Event Cards in the game to reference the 20 million lawyers of the PCC suing different game factions or pushing for UN involvement in the war. Har Har.
  • 8-7-2015: Texas secedes from the Union and forms its own republic.
    • I mean, of course.
  • 9-6-2015: Quebec secedes from Canada, prompting a showdown between Canada and France’s Foreign Legion
    • Canadians who were around then can tell you all about the Quebec separation referendum of 1995 and what it meant for the integrity of Canada. With a vote of 50.58% to stay and 49.42% to leave, it remained a contentious issue for Quebec and Canadian politics for some time. Though the separation issue has died down for many in the 2010s, it was a key talking point when the game was released.
    • France’s ability or desire to defend a free Quebec here is probably only to set up a conflict for a future game and probably only marginally traced to French President Charles de Gaulle’s 1967 speech in Montreal where he exclaimed, “Vive le Quebec Libre!” (Long Live Free Quebec) which served to embolden those seeking separatism and to harm French-Canada relations for some time.
  • 1-1-2017: New US Government is established and order is restored
    • Well we need the fourth player in the game to be a still powerful US.
  • 4-5-2019: Mexico claims the Pacific Ocean seizing numerous Japanese Fishing Boats
    • Sigh
  • 11-15-2019: After months of Negotiations Fail, Mexico executes hundreds of Japanese Fishermen
    • Sigh
  • 11-19-2019: Japan, along with their ally the SAU, declare war on Mexico
    • This touches off the conflict of the game (in which Mexico as a state plays no part, I must mention) and points to the growing economic ties between Japan and South America during the 1980s and Japan’s still monumental growth as an economic power. While Japan’s financial crisis of the ‘Lost Decade’ was already being felt by 1994, it makes some sense that a game designed during the early 1990s would still hold onto the idea of Japan as a rising economic power that seemed unable to be stopped.
  • 11-19-2019: The US and Texas invade Mexico on the pretext of saving Mexico from Japanese Imperialism
    • Yikes.

There you have it, the complete and utterly ridiculous time capsule of Sushi-Jalapeno War’s narrative. I expect several shlocky novellas and at least one Tabletop RPG to be developed now. Get to it everyone.

Really it was meant to be ridiculous, but the way the timeline develops does shed some light onto some of the more fascinating issues of the early 1990s. Should we be displeased at what is frankly an insensitive and racist depiction of South American, Mexican, and Japanese peoples made for a jokey wargame in 1994? We can be, but probably shouldn’t be. It is enough to recognize that it is beyond rediuclous now and that the proposed sequels should proably not get the green light (little danger there.) The game is probably best preserved as a historical artifact. I know it’ll be sitting on a shelf in my office from now on, continuing to earn its keep as a conversation starter, a lesson in material history, and a window into the wacky world of 1994.

To all those who have a copy, dig it up, try out our new rules, and join that special group of those who played ­Sushi-Jalapeno War on the day it actually happened. If the original designer of Sushi-Jalapeno War is out there (I’ve tried looking for you!) Please let me know how close I came with my revision. I know publishing games can be…difficult…for designers who are beholden to a publisher.

Thanks for reading,

Joe

Way of Defector: Exploring North Korea’s Defectors through Gaming

By Joe Fonseca. Originally posted on ‘Overactive Academic’ in 2018

Though the humanitarian aid worker tried their best, bribing the public security officer and eventually securing my release, their efforts were for naught. Two days later, unable to shake off the intensified searches put on by the police, I collapsed somewhere on the road outside Changchun, starvation and exhaustion overtaking me.

So ended my first attempt to escape from North Korea. An experience that, despite the simple mechanics and presentation of Way of Defector, allowed me to really reflect upon the danger some North Koreans face for a slim chance at bettering their lot in life. It also made me think about the way this indie game, produced by the small South Korean studio Dev Arc, portrays North Korean Defector stories and the uses such a simple game can have in an academic setting.

Set up like a board game, Way of Defector allows players to choose, “various scenarios based on true stories to create your own defection story.”[1] The game progress in turns of four phases, wherein the player can make decisions for their character about how they spend the day. This can include resting to eat and regain health, working illegally to earn money, or inquiring after the whereabouts of brokers who can help secure you passage to the South. The success or failure of each of these attempts is resolved by throwing dice, which are modified by the player character’s skills, the amount of time dedicated to the task, and any potential helpful items, (heavy work pants, for example, make physical work easier). Throughout the game, during any action, random events may occur. These take the form of small narratives, the outcome of which the player can influence through their choices. As this game simulates the most common escape path through Northern China, the player character is also pursued by Chinese public service agents, who wander about the map in periods of calm, or else ruthlessly track defectors while executing a ‘crackdown’. Meeting one (or more) at a location requires every action to be done with extra care, represented by opposed dice rolls, to see whether the player character can outwit or outrun the authorities.

The mechanics of play are simple enough for those without gaming experience to quickly pick up the basics after tool tips and pop ups explain character stats and potential actions. This leaves the player able, in my own experience at least, to become more engrossed in the emerging narrative of the escapee. The way this story forms is based in part on the character you choose and on the actions you decide to take.

Several characters are available, each with their own starting location and a specific ability that affects the game. When players begin, only the first character, Kim Young-sung, is available, with more unlocked as the player makes progress. These characters are fictional, but based on developer conducted interviews, according to a developer’s answers on Steam’s discussion board, “It is based on real defectors. We did interviews with defectors cause we’re Korean. But this game don’t have specific storyline. You’ll make your story within various random events.”[2] This is perfectly reasonable given the potential danger and added restrictions of using an actual individual’s lived experience. This decision allows players to feel less confined by any individual’s real life choices and instead allows them to experience their own journey, however brief it may be. Yet it is worth considering the accuracy and authenticity of the experience offered.

Though the physical appearance of the game may not engross players the way a high profile and highly graphical game may, the simple construction and minimalistic mechanics allows players the ability to lose themselves in their imaginations. It is impossible, of course, to fully experience what a North Korean defector would through playing this game; I did not die from exhaustion after a two-day pursuit near Changchun, nor is my leg broken or my stomach empty. Yet as a way of developing empathy in players, Way of Defector succeeds.

I played cautiously, avoiding those who offered shelter or information, believing it could be a trap. I stayed in the countryside, avoiding patrols to the detriment of my health. And at the back of my mind through all this was the understanding that the greatest danger that could befall me was being sent home. After a forty-minute session, I had ended my first attempt in failure, but the game had succeeded in making me try to approach a situation from the perspective of a fugitive, and in so doing humanized the too-often maligned people of North Korea, who are, by and large, mere victims of the unforgiving wiles of history and modern power politics.

As a learning tool, Way of Defector’s position as a mixture of biographical account and narrative fiction allows it to serve as a launchpad for discussing the dangers facing North Korean defectors and the issues surrounding North Korean Defector texts, depending on the class level.

Debates about the accuracy of defector texts and their use as political tools in South Korea bear mentioning. In one of the most high-profile cases, Shin Dong-Hyuk’s admission of mistakes in his immensely popular narrative Escape from Camp 14 cast doubt upon the veracity of these survivor stories as a whole. Not only did foreign observers question the truth of his story, the mistakes was quickly pounced upon by North Korea in an attempt to discredit defector stories wholesale.[3]  Around the same time, the harrowing story of Yeonmi Park was damaged by the conflicting interviews she gave. Mary Ann Jolley, writing for The Diplomat, laid out these inconsistencies, but included Park’s own response, that the language barrier and mistaken childhood memories contributed to errors.[4]

While these revisions engendered suspicion, North Korea’s possession of family members, fears of reprisal, shame and psychological blocks, are all factors in hindering the veracity of these narratives. Added to this, the history of defector narratives, including immediate post-war defectors being utilized by South Korea as propaganda tools, and the skepticism that can come from the modern celebrity lifestyle of some defectors makes dismissal easy.[5] Yet accepting and using cross-referenced defector narratives remains one of the best ways to obtain information from North Korea, as maintained by North Korean Specialist Bradley K. Martin.[6] Finally, the argument remains that inconsistencies matter less than the creation of the narrative itself. John Cussen of Edinboro University argues that these works form the core of a new genre of North Korean literature, that they are necessary counterpoints to North Korean centric fiction, and that, “the experts are wrong to disdain the memoirs… because the border between fiction and nonfiction is not the imporous, thread-narrow, determinate line that they imagine.”[7] Way of Defector plays into potential discussions of all of these topics, and makes a case of the utility of games as a not just a story telling tool, but as a way of engaging with historical and current events.

In a high school history or social studies classroom, Way of Defector can serve alongside lecture as an excellent introduction to the struggles of the North Korean people, as it possesses such a low skill barrier and cheap cost. Students can attempt to complete a single run through, documenting their troubles and successes, and reflect upon the hardships faced or the specific struggles that were heretofore unknown, like the role of churches or the dread of being told you will not be paid for your labour because your secret origin was discovered. For better or worse, the game does not hit upon the more vicious dangers North Koreans may experience in China, including sexual slavery and human trafficking, though the end game loss conditions are accompanied by paintings of a firing squad or your collapsed body.

In first or second year university courses, I can envision this game being used along with others to discuss the impact and value of propaganda in interactive media, examinations of North Korea in media, especially if the instructor decides to contrast North Korean representations in the West and South Korea, or to discuss the arguments that surround the validity of North Korean defector stories. In any case, the length of the average game (30-60 minutes) and the easy of entry, both financially and in relation to game skill knowledge, makes this an interesting candidate for classrooms as well as personal exploration.

What do you think about these kinds of touchy subjects in video games? How about their use in the classroom? Please let me know what you think about this kind of article, if you’d like to see more, if I’m completely off base, of if there are other historical video games that you think I should take a look at. All the best,

Joe

References

[1] “Way of Defector on Steam.” Steampowered.com. http://store.steampowered.com/app/658660/Way_of_Defector/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[2] Beautifullcastle[developer]. “Game length?” Way of Defector General Discussion. http://steamcommunity.com/app/658660/discussions/0/1500126447404387168/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[3] Shoichet, Catherine and Madison Park. “North Korea slams defector over inaccuracies in story.” CNN World. January 20, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/20/asia/north-korea-responds-after-defector-changes-story/index.html (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[4] Jolley, Mary Ann. “The Strange Tale of Yeonmi Park: A high-profile North Korean defector has harrowing stories to tell. But are they true?” The Diplomat. December 10, 2014. https://thediplomat.com/2014/12/the-strange-tale-of-yeonmi-park/ (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[5] Martin, Bradley K. “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.” Global Post. January 22, 2015. https://www.pri.org/stories/2015-01-22/problem-north-korea-s-celebrity-defectors (Retrieved December 15 2017).

[6] Martin, “The problem with North Korea’s celebrity defectors.”

[7] Cussin, John. “On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defector’s Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative.” Korean Studies. 40. (January 1, 2016), 148.