as a heads up, I was a backer, and am a long-time (maybe the word "lifer" is more appropriate) fan of Caleb's! I don't claim to be objective--who is?--but I'm definitely hyperexposed to Red Markets, so. take this for what it's worth!
Red Markets is a bloodshot-eyed critique of the world we live in through the newly-coined genre of economic horror. when we talk about zombie media, we often talk about how the zombies aren't really the point, that queue cliche humans are the real monsters, etc. that's true in Red Markets, too--Caleb's gone on record as saying he wants his living dead to be more like weather than anything--but it goes a step further. instead of a smug morality play about how bad people get in extremity, Red Markets is about how bad we already are, right here, right now, in the real world. "the apocalypse has come, and like everything else in capitalism, it's unevenly distributed."
in Red Markets, the zombie plague starts out fast 28 Days Later style and turns into an endless slow Land of the Dead Romerosacape with just a tease of cosmic horror aberration to satisfy and squelch us "but why, but how"ers. but the world doesn't just give up and die. the haves are separated from the have-nots, and most nations manage to armor up and keep some territory for themselves. billions die, and a lot of land is ceded, but just enough last that there's a world to go back to. the internet endures. trade is still a thing. for the lucky few in the safe zones, an opulent lifestyle is still possible.
but our PCs aren't the lucky ones. whatever their skills, whatever they're backgrounds, they're among the millions left behind in the dead zones--the Loss, in the language of the setting, because every goddamn thing is named with an econ term and it's the best. declared dead by their government, they huddle in enclaves dreamed up in collaboration between player and GM--sorry, the Market, because see above, seriously everything--whose hardscrabble lives are defined by their surpluses and shortfalls. these protagonist Takers are the ones who won't put up with where they are, and who will do more or less anything to escape the Loss and get into the deadless spaces, the Recession, where they might eke out a barely-scraping-by existence or ascend to the ranks of the soccer moms and craft beer dads, depending on how much they've got socked away when they finally head east.
Red Markets has a strong conceit, but its real genius is in the way its mechanics reinforce its ideas. it's fascinating to compare RM to early editions of D&D. D&D used to be interest itself with the meticulous bookkeeping of carry weights and rations, aiming for a pseudo-simulationist version of what an expedition might look like. in Red Markets, in contrast, scarcity is everywhere, but keeping track of it all is simple, front and center, and constantly stressful. you want to make an attack? spend a charge. you want to evade an enemy? spend a charge. you want to reload your gun? spend a charge. everything, from equipment to characters, is wearing down in Red Markets, and between game design and some super slick work on character sheets, it feels natural, tactile and easy to track. has anyone else ever avoided looking at their bank balance when they know it's low? Red Markets won't let you. you have to watch yourself dwindle as the Loss erodes you, as every single gamble you take exacts its opportunity cost. you are poor. your resources are limited. everything crisis you dedicate time and attention to is another crisis you won't be able to.
even beyond the baseline attrition gameplay, Red Markets has some insights into the human (poverty capitalism) condition that are, to my experience, wholly unmatched in the gaming space. some of these rules ended up being too hard on players--the game shipped with "boom" and "bust" difficulty modes, with Caleb's harshest critiques on the world we live in boxed off into Bust options. it might be more personal than a review ought to be, but there was a particular rule, "No Budget No Buy," that genuinely changed the way I think about money and lack in the real world. under NBNB, a character needs to plan for the things they'll buy -after- a job -before- they take the job. they need to decide how much they'll bank toward escaping the Loss, how much they'll spend on getting themselves stitched up, how much they'll spend on psychiatric care and upgrading their favorite revolver. any money they get in excess of what they've planned disappears. "it's extra money!" Caleb explained the mindset behind this--a mindset I've seen myself and others actively sink into out here in the skinlands. "I can do whatever I want with it!" so it gets spent offscreen on vanities that don't get the character anywhere.
I'm not sure I've ever read an RPG book before that changed how I thought about the psychology of poverty, and how I thought about my own relationship with money.
but Red Markets is full of these insights. it's distinctly Hebanon that the line between bitter truth and dark comedy is crossed again and again as Caleb details the sovereign citizen-esque Randians and the antivax Detox movement. it's entirely in mood that the human element makes immunity to the virus even worse than being subject to it. it's way too true that you can fail your way into doing a job for an employer who won't even cover your operating costs.
I've been struggling to make a comparison between Red Markets and Unknown Armies in terms of their significance, their moment, but in the end, I think I shouldn't--Unknown Armies is a game about feeling good about the world, feeling like it all matters, like caring is important. Red Markets features all of the big wins and huge payoffs of any adventure RPG, but it is, at its heart, harsh about real structures that deserve harsh treatment and don't get it. it's not a screed--it's a game, and a very playable game, even if you just like intense zombie-economy sims--but it speaks to life in the twenty-first century for a majority of Americans who are barely getting by.
Caleb recorded a podcast detailing his process in making Red Markets, Game Designer's Workshop. he constantly apologized for how he was fucking it up, which I didn't get at all. it was far and away the most careful, thoughtful and professional process I've encountered in--almost any Kickstarter in any medium? anyway--he'd often summarize Red Markets more or less thus, misquoted: "you can work every day of your life as a roofer for 30 years, then one day you step wrong, you slip, you fall off the roof and break your back. and then you have nothing." that's what Red Markets is going for. you're not an invulnerable hero who can come back from any kobold stab. you're an average American laborer (wherever you might actually be) who's working a XXX job where one accident could spell the end for no good reason. where no one's looking out for you, even though someone should be. even though it's not just.
go there, man.