Momentum

If you turn a plant around perpendicular to the gravitational axes, it grows in a spiral. In other words, if you keep changing the definition of up and down, the plant just adapts, and adapts, and adapts. That’s what life does. If grass can do it, you can do it. Well, except for photosynthesis.

Let me tell you about the first card game I ever made. I was 23, it was 1999, and I had no real interest in game design before that. But Lunch Money and Chez Geek and Once Upon A Time and other such amazing new card games had just come out and the world was teetering on the edge of the golden age. So when my sister and I were watching Primary Colours and she suggested it could be some kind of game, I got out some cards and went to work. The game was called Election, and it was about building up Platform cards (like “Bomb Them Towelheads Back to the Stone Age!”) and Character cards (“I Triumphed Over Dyslexia”) before a random game card triggered the end, and avoiding attack cards that showed you to be a hypocrite. People played it an laughed at my flavour and setting (my biggest strength, already), but it became very obvious that putting down point cards was always a better strategy than attacking someone else.

I thought and thought and thought and thought and spend an entire year trying to figure out how to fix that. And I had no idea what to do next. I concluded I had no skill for game design and put it away and with it any intent of doing more.

Fast forward fifteen years. The Golden Age has raged and for me, RPGs have waned in my tastes, replaced by a love of the cardboard dream. The itch rises again. Some friends and I come up with hundreds of film tropes in an attempt to make an Apples 2 Apples type parlour game, but it’s not much of a game and we don’t know what to do next. One of those friends starts getting the bug and starts making cards. He takes them to unpubs and protospiels. I feel bewildered; surely I should be able to do this too. But there’s a block. I just can’t figure it out. It’s like I don’t speak the language.

So I go to conventions and ask questions about how to push forward. When to give up. How to get ideas. I study the process. But it’s slow. See, at every stage, it doesn’t seem to make sense. Not only do I not know what to do, I don’t know how to find out. Listening to podcasts doesn’t fit. Reading books feels off. And I couldn’t ever ask someone to playtest something for me. Not even my friends. It almost killed me asking people to play There Is No Spoon all those years ago. And I know I can make RPGs.

But I can make RPGs. So I start there. I write It Is Forbidden, but more importantly, I take it to an unpub. I stare down the barrel of hell and ask people to play a game I wrote. I get in fast and then run away shaking. I remember the first time I asked a business if they’d be interested in being interviewed in my old magazine PTGPTB. I had a car accident that day I was so nervous.

But then I get the game out again at PAX 2016 and amongst friends I run it again.

A few months later, I have an idea for a card game. And now I know enough about how to print pictures. How to sleeve things. It’s hard but I learn by doing. It’s ugly as hell but it exists. And at CanCon in January, I go to a publisher meet and play other people’s stuff. And right at the end, I bring out my baby. And it falls over and fails but a few people offer instant suggestions, and immediately it gets better.

You know the rest of this story. That was Baby Dragon Bedtime and everyone who plays it loves it. And it looks like it’s getting published. In the week leading up to PAX 2017 I saw how to coalesce one game and it may be optioned as well. I’ve made two whole card games since I’ve got home nine days ago. They’re not nearly finished of course but they exist to be tested which is what matters. And it wasn’t so hard because I can find the software now and can print and sleeve and make. My hands find the positions. Nothing screams in my head about the wrongness of it all. In fact it comes so quick I can barely stop. I listen to three podcasts while I go, and read my game dev books, and run unpubs.

IMG-2741Like I said, you know this story. It’s the story you always hear. Sucking at stuff is just the first step to be pretty good at stuff. But it’s not about skill, or not just about skill. Nature knows what is normal, and if you change anything, no matter what, the system screams. The plant realises up is no longer up and the system goes into shock. Everything it used to do is wrong.

And then, it grows upwards in the new upwards. As if nothing changed. As if it always had.

I’m cheating somewhat of course. Game design isn’t a physical skill like drawing or dancing, and I’d been studying it by osmosis my whole life. But there’s lots of skills like it. And those that aren’t like it – well, once you turn the pot, the learning comes much easier. Often in messy, ugly jerks and starts, other times in gushes, but once you know about changing your nature, the learning gets easier.

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Nature does what it knows. Change feels like death. But once changed, doing it differently is life. Yes, there are skills, and that’s a barrier too. But there’s also the pain of change. Once you know it’s there, you can ride it out. And in a blur, everything is suddenly easy. Everything is suddenly just what you do. As easy as breathing. Turn the pot. You can do it.

Free Solo Storygame: Stallions of Steel!

If you were at PAX Australia this year you might have been handed a copy of THE DAY THEY CAME (my parlour game about refugees) or PUPPY DOG TALES (my parlour game of trying to guess the movie dogs want to watch). Meanwhile, Alex, Shannon, Rex and I made a board game in one hour (the amazing UN-STABLE, a game of psychic horse warfare).

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I did most of the MCing and none of the designing on UNstable so it made sense for Shannon to challenge me to add a stretch goal to our game: a story game about the cyber-psychic horse apocalypse. (We kind of lost the cyber in the board game, look shut up, this was all done at high speed).

It ended up being another solo game in the tradition of The Tin Star. Here is STALLIONS OF STEEL, a game about the terrible cyber consequences of winning the war for horse freedom against human oppressors.

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This is the only copy so I’m sorry it’s so blurry. I’ll write it out properly in the next few weeks if I ever get over this goddamn flu.

Anyway you too can make guerrilla one page RPGs it’s grate. It’s not just Grant Howitt and me.

 

 

The End of Exploration

Back in 2014, a game called Hyperborea came out, by Andrea Chiarvesio and Peirlucca Zizzi. It was the raving-mad-new-hotness of its year, and now is mostly forgotten, which is a brief side lesson in how fickle and fast-moving the board game industry is these days. We are like the film industry now: trends are king, but are a harsh master. Dice drafting is already on the way out. Vikings have already reached saturation point. You’re only as good as your last picture. And like films, as we tunnel into a more mainstream position in the zeitgeist, we have to be even more conscious of how we affect that zeitgeist.

Hyperborea’s backstory is that a thousand years ago the Hyperborean kingdom went kersplodo and a huge magical barrier appeared around it protecting the satellite nations from the magical radiation. But now, the magical curtain is dropped and the inner empire is a smorgasbord of riches for the six now-kingdoms rushing into fill the gap. I mention this because they at least took the time and effort to come up with a conceit which explains something we see so often in board games (and computer games): the vast empty wildnerness, waiting to be eXplored, eXpanded into and eXploited.

And it’s not just in 4X games. Look through the history of successful board games, especially the “euro” ones, look at the winners of the Spiel Der Jahre over the years and you’ll see a lot of these kinds of scenarios. Some of them are generic, like Settlers of Catan, or in a fantasy world, like Small World or Terra Mystica, or in space like Race For the Galaxy or Ad Astra. Some of them borrow from actual history which shows the problem much more clearly. Games like Imperial Settlers, Peurto Rico, San Juan, Keyflower, Endeavour, Entdecker, Indonesia, Macau, The Great Zimbabwe, and of course the infamous Archipelago all turn the real age of colonisation into a economic question of getting the most resources from areas that, if inhabited by locals at all, not by locals who get any say in what you take. In Archipelago, you lose when the natives push back. Space game Eminent Domain’s title comes from a rule used to steal native land (among other things). As yet I am unaware of a game called Terra Nullius but there is one called Manifest Destinty, because oh my god of course there is what is wrong with this goddamn hobby.

Tabletop could use a harsh lesson in better use of its historical themes, and so far basically only Spirit Island has done it. While large chunks of America is getting rid of Columbus Day, Santa Maria with its joyful Conquistadors and “migrant workers” replacing slaves comes out early next year. But as mentioned, even without actual history, we’ll still have placeholders and coded explorations. The people on the cover of Settlers of Catan look very much like European colonists in the New World, after all. And Small World has Ancient Tribes on the board that you must annihilate (don’t worry, though, they are already In Decline). In short, it’s the very concept of exploration that is mired in a European mythology that is deeply problematic. From the Portugese to the Spanish to the Dutch to the French to the English to the American empires, the assumption of colonisation has been that “out there” is empty, lacking in civilisation, and waiting to be eXplored and eXploited, waiting, waiting for the white man’s great touch.

Perhaps the way of all Empires, you might say, but it is the fall out of those european empires we are dealing with to this day. The Prime Minister of Australia in 2014 – the same year Hyperborea came out – suggested that when European colonists arrived in Australia, there was “nothing but bush”, and this colonial mindset is the foundation of the idea that keeps indigenous people oppressed and unequal around the world. It was the justification of the slave trade and it remains the justification for its descendant cruelties. It remains the justification for wars and invasions into the Middle East as well.

Now, let’s be clear: exploration is something humans love, in reality and in games. We love to reach out to the great beyond. Many of my generation have lamented that they live in an age where there is nothing quite yet to explore in space, but all the world has already been explored and hides no mysteries. But that very sense of the new hides a terribly dangerous othering. As the old joke goes, when colonists show up to discover a country, the inhabitants weren’t aware they’d been lost. When Star Trek claims to go where no-one has gone before, they of course find everyone is already there (and quite rightly see the Federation as invaders). In Star Trek VI, Kirk romantically sets his ship into the great beyond, quoting Peter Pan: “Second star to the right, and straight on until morning”. Peter Pan’s Neverland, of course, echoed the boyhood fantasies of J.M. Barrie which were tales of the golden age of piracy; where the Lost Boys are colonising an island full of native americans.

Exploration is also something that works naturally in games. Just as combat and warfare have natural elements that lend themselves to games (direct competition, resource management, the thrill of the chase), exploration is at the heart of even abstract games. The mystery of not knowing what cards are in your opponents hands, or what domino you’ll pick up, or where the tiles are in Mahjong are all about exploration, and turning over tiles and discovering hidden information is always going to be entertaining and a core game mechanic. But there are plenty of games where these worlds aren’t empty – as simplistic a model of World of Warcraft got this right, for example, even if everything there had to be punched, at least it wasn’t any different than home.

Colonisation also fits gaming because we have this innate understanding of taking something empty, and rough, and primitive, and making it established and built and bigger, and that excellent fits our desire in games to build, expand and create. Games have distinct acts and building up an engine and a place fit that tempo and give us the joy of seeing our creation come alive, our tactics pay off, and our story resolve. But again, there is a question of EMPTINESS at hand. In Chinatown, the shopping blocks are all empty to begin with because, we assume, the government has just knocked down a bunch of other buildings and rezoned an area for shops. We might wonder what was there before, but this isn’t inherently a problematic story. Whereas when we play Puerto Rico, the map is clearly empty. The island has nothing on it. Even when we play San Juan where there is no map to fill in, we start with nothing. The white man has to come and put in the mines and the factories, because, we must assume, either there was nobody there to use the resources or those who were there weren’t using them properly. 

And that’s the real danger. That’s that European narrative that gets us in trouble. Not only is the world empty, the terra nullius, where there is nothing but nature to face down and explore, but it is also undeveloped, waiting for white man (ie civilisation) to civilise it with mines and factories and houses and a church. Every civ game ever is guilty of this sin; the land starts out untamed, even though we begin in the stone age. As if at some point, we had a blank slate. And this myth is so powerful and so ingrained, we barely even notice it. We forget that the Native Americans had traveled to Europe long before the Mayflower arrived, that they had vast nations and complex governments and great merchant trade routes. We are ignorant that indigenous Australians had farms and mines and churches, which the white invaders knocked down because they didn’t recognise as being those things. We cannot imagine that indigenous peoples fought wars and made peace, and had kings and queens and parliaments, raised up gods and tore those gods down and all the things we think of empires doing; all of that was going on, all the time. They weren’t playing Civilisation and stuck on the first technology and the first social policies, they were just slightly behind on weapons.

(We also forget that the these civilising efforts were done almost exclusively not by smiling happy free settlers keen to build a new world like a bunch of clever, hardy Robinson Crusoes, but by slaves stolen from other lands on the way there, or taken upon arrival, and/or prisoners.)

But as I say, exploration is a lovely mechanic. But we can explore not like colonists, but like naturalists: with the sense that we are not finding an emptiness, but stepping into a world fully populated, and where everything we do may have enormous impact. Where we should not perhaps smash a butterfly lest we change not the future, but break a balance we cannot understand. And building is a lovely mechanic. But we can build like sharers, understanding that others have built here also, that our farms and mines and churches are strange and ill-fitting, perhaps even may fail to stand or last because they are ill-suited.

The third city founded in Australia is called Windsor and when settlers reached it they found the soil so rich and bountiful they believed it was a paradise gifted by God, and couldn’t understand why the Aboriginal inhabitants kept trying to tell them not to farm there. The soil was so moist because the valley where they founded the town goes underwater every twenty years, which they discovered soon. I mention this because it’s the kind of story we don’t see in all the countless civilising games I’ve mentioned. Or if we do, it’s as a natural disaster when of course it is about communication between people, not nature.

And I say it’s a story we don’t see because that’s what this comes down to. You can for the most part keep your Wide Blue Yonder and your 4X games. As long as you’re aware of how dangerous they can be, how insidiously they might be programming you to believe in the lie of terra nullius. But you CAN keep them. But what we need, what we always need, is new ideas. New stories. Different stories. Maybe even better stories. Instead of a thousand new 4X games which all feel the same, where somehow, against everything we’ve ever known, there’s some vast empty space waiting to be taken by whomever gets their first, and we fight over those territories, not our safe home bases. We’re supposed to be explorers: so let’s EXPLORE. Let’s go somewhere new for once. Somewhere realistic. Somewhere true.