Brightly colored board game called Urban Cipher with concentric circles and game pieces and the words "Urban Cipher" at the center
Photos from the Black Butterfly Dream Lab website

In most board games, players begin on a level playing field. “It’s anyone’s game,” folks say.

But in his game Urban Cipher, Dr. Lawrence T. Brown demonstrates how racial segregation in Baltimore is a designed system, shaping where and how people are able to live.

The game was created in the style of Monopoly, and is based on Brown’s best-selling book, “The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space In America.”

Speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl about his book in 2021, Brown described Baltimore Apartheid: “Racially segregating people, concentrating them into communities and then uprooting them over and over again, urban renewal, building highways in the middle of the Black community, demolishing public housing, and then dispersing residents all over the place.”

Brown wrote about Baltimore’s “Black Butterfly” and “White L,” highlighting the differences between the predominantly white neighborhoods along Baltimore’s central corridor and Inner Harbor creating an “L” shape, and the predominantly Black neighborhoods that fan out in a butterfly-like shape.

Baltimore Fishbowl caught up again with Brown, who is a professor at Morgan State University’s Center for Urban Health Equity, to find out more about the launch of Urban Cipher, its potential, and the response he and the game have received.

While touring and talking about his book, Brown thought he could create a board game similar to Monopoly, but using Baltimore neighborhoods and transposing the residential segregation map onto the board to help players understand how race intersects with space.

Although Brown didn’t design Urban Cipher to target a particular age group, he said he assumed a younger audience might be more used to digital games, while a board game would be more appealing to an older crowd. Still, he and graphic artist Andre Budo sought to make the game visually compelling so that teachers would be motivated to use it in their classrooms with their students.

The game can be played as a standalone activity, but it’s also designed to be an introduction to a larger discussion and more in-depth activities to understand the impact of redlining. 

“Not everyone will read a book,” said Brown. “This creates multiple learning tools.”

Players have certain advantages based on where they begin on the board. The game employs Cipher Cards (think Community Chest in Monopoly) which introduce “Policy Events” that impact a player’s success or potential roadblocks. A policy event falls under one of several categories involving transportation; public housing; availability of healthy food in the form of grocery stores; infrastructure, like a highway being built through a neighborhood; and other occurrences that impact the economic and social health of people living in those neighborhoods where the players are on the board.

Brown describes himself as an Afrofuturist, a term which he explained is not normally applied to academics. Typically, it is used to describe a creative aesthetic, such as music, film, or comic books. He said he uses the term as a way of distinguishing himself from more “vanilla” data scientists.

While systemic inequities are in place by design, Brown said Afrofuturism invokes the notion that their solutions must come from a place of purposeful creativity.

“We are not bound by structures and outcomes,” he said. “We can think around and through the problems and disparities. There’s a creative aspect to Afrofuturism, creativeness not always found in an academic setting.”

Corner of the brightly colored game board for "Urban Cipher" with game pieces and play money
Photo from Black Butterfly Dream Lab website

Urban Cipher is one of the tools in the larger Black Butterfly Dream Lab, a project designed to help people take tangible steps to “shape change in our cities and make Black neighborhoods matter,” according to the lab’s website.

Rollout of Urban Cipher has been a natural extension of the presentations to which Brown is invited regularly. He often presents at professional days for educators, and he has spoken all over the country about his book, so he let his contacts know about the board game, and has included it in his workshops. He has also led game nights at local book shops and community spaces, including The Ivy and at Open Works.

Brown has been gratified by the reception to the game. He said his audiences have been “incredibly diverse” and have included people of all ages, including students from local public schools and private schools. He attributes the positive response to the fact that a board game is “not so intimidating” and a “more lighthearted” approach to teaching about a difficult systemic societal problem.

He noted, however, that it can “make it real for people. It can land in a heavier way with people, depending on how they bring their real-life experiences to the game.”

Brown recalled being at the University of Dayton, where he spoke at the Imagining Community symposium. A family with two young children, ages five and six, played the game together. One of the children complained, “The game is rigged!”

Another child handed him a piece of paper that said “I thought we were going to win but we didn’t!” The paper had two stick figures drawn on it with tears on their faces.

When asked about the game’s future, Brown said there are no plans at the moment to turn Urban Cipher into a digital game. He does, however, envision different versions of the game being created for different cities around the country with a history of redlining, racial segregation, and housing discrimination. He would love to see the game go mainstream.

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