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Another World is Possible

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I wrote this as a draft of a statement of purpose for a grant, but it became broader than the laser-focus on particulars that is necessary for grant writing. Nonetheless, I liked it too much to just delete it, so here it is.

Have you ever seen a place in a new light? Have you rammed your trolley through the gateway of platform nine-and-three-quarters or brushed past a row of fur coats and into Narnia? Have you looked around at your neighborhood, with all of its problems and thought “Whoa. This place is beautiful?”

I was sitting at a table with seven other people inside the Chicago Cultural Center, a beautiful old library-turned-art-museum with stone staircases, heavy wooden tables, and multiple Tiffany glass domes. We were waiting for the organizer to arrive. Then one of us at the table got a phone call. He stood up “I gotta run,” he said, beginning to ACTUALLY RUN for the doors “Look under the table!” he called across the room.

There was a briefcase, and secret envelopes, and coded instructions that took us up and down the stairs of the center, into the streets outside, and down the elevator into the tunnels that run beneath the city. For three hours, we tailed each other to dead drops, met mysterious agents, and solved codes as we played a spy-themed pervasive game. I would never see the Chicago Cultural Center in the same way again.

Games are wonderful entertainment activities, but they can be more. Games in general contain powerful magic, as expressed in the popular game studies term “The Magic Circle,” the place where the agreements of everyday life fall away and the agreements of the game take force. In a game, you can lie to your friends, sneak plans behind their backs, and make plans to crush their team. But not all of gaming is so competitive. In a game, you can also try on a new identity, experience the world from a new point of view, or deal with unexpected challenges that others face daily.

Games, in short, are powerful engines of empathy. By putting players into the shoes of others, often others living more dangerous lives, the game gives the player a safe place to experiment; to take risks with no consequence greater than maybe losing the game. Paradoxically, games can serve to activate players even as they serve as an insulator against consequences. As a form, games require more engagement than other media. While a movie can unspool with or without the viewer’s active engagement, if the players of a game cease to engage, the game falls apart. This activation, even in the small sense of engaging with a game, is a move against passivity.

Many activist friends of mine like to use the phrase “another world is possible” to remind themselves to expand their conceptions of reality; to look beyond the broken systems of the world and imagine new ways of being. This is the function of games for me. That other world that is possible might be something controlled by a mega-corporation, like Star Wars (not to disparage Star Wars games — there are some great ones out there right now!), or something more innovative and politically motivated, like the activist board game “Bloc By Bloc,” where players create an Occupy-style movement in a city.

As a designer and scholar of these experiences, I am always working to hone my craft; to understand how players play and how game systems work; to incorporate technology when appropriate, and shun it when necessary. I want to make another world possible, a real world where playful, imaginative people are the norm, and where powerful, exciting experiences are not just the domain of the privileged, but also, in the interim, a fantasy world that hides in plain sight, waiting for you to see it in the right light.

Fog of Love: Emotions as skill

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These past few weeks I’ve been on break from school, and when I wasn’t playing Skull, I was playing “Fog of Love”. Plenty of people have gushed about this game, and I am firmly in that camp — I love “Fog of Love.” I think it does things that board games as  medium have been chomping at the bit to do for a long time, but have never quite pulled off. I love that it took a first-time game designer to pull it off. I love that it was a game inspired by the breadth of genres in other media, and the dearth of genres in board games.

But what is most interesting to me is that “Fog of Love” really effectively engages its players’ emotions. Most of this post won’t make sense unless you’re familiar with the rules and gameplay of “Fog of Love”, so please, go buy or play it.

By “engages players’ emotions” I don’t (necessarily) mean narratively. Rather, I mean that the game, by virtue of its mechanisms, forces you to behave like someone in a relationship. Because your trait cards are hidden from the other player, you have to guess what they’re after based on where their tokens end up on the six aspect tracks. This, to my mind, really effectively models empathy. Based on what another person communicates via their words and actions (as represented by those aspect tracks), you have to guess what they really want.

“Fog of Love” takes it a step further, however: Once you have an informed guess about what your partner wants, you have to make some hard decisions; namely, will you help your partner move in the direction they want to move on the aspect trackers, even if it hurts your satisfaction (the other big tracking mechanism) or your desired position on the aspect trackers.

I played with a friend of mine recently, and we were able to both succeed in our destinies, due in part to the fact that I was able to move on aspect trackers that I didn’t care about (i.e. that I didn’t have trait goals representing) in order to help her character achieve his (we played gender-swapped characters) trait goals. That made a lot of the decisions relatively easy. The game gets more complicated (and more like real life) when you have to decide whether it’s worth it to help your partner achieve their goal (as far as you can guess) even if it means sacrificing one of your own goals.

One model for designing games is to think about who the player wants to imagine themselves as, and then think about how to make the player feel like that person. Hence, lots of games where players become heroic, powerful people vanquishing monsters, ruling lands, etc. While these games do deliver on their promises of feelings of success and power via triumphs over difficult odds, the mechanical enactment of the fantasy often feels abstract.

This is fine. I’m not calling out games for being abstract. Abstraction is in the nature of games. But where “Fog of Love” succeeds, and where it teaches a really powerful design lesson is in refusing to abstract the emotional aspects of its story. When I’m playing a hero in Middle Earth Quest or a pilot in X-Wing, it’s fun to feel how my character feels, and the game even encourages that via its mechanics, but it probably won’t help me win the game. In “Fog of Love”, in order to succeed, I need to feel how my character feels. I need to empathize, to struggle over sacrifices, to create moments for clear communication or attempt the high-stakes mind-reading that can happen in real relationships when communication breaks down.

“Fog of Love” makes feeling a skill in playing and winning the game. That’s something new, and something that bodes well for the future of the medium.

A Skull & Roses Christmas

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I got a chance to see a lot of friends and family over the holidays, and rather than try to cajole them into playing some new, complex board game, I came up with a new plan: Teach everyone Skull.

Skull (aka Skull and Roses) is apparently an old game, though I haven’t had the chance to do research on how old. In 2015, Asmodee published a lovely set of coasters for playing Skull, but what endears this game to me, in part, is how little equipment it requires. At each of my holiday visits, I found a deck of cards and dealt everyone a hand of three red cards (the roses) and one black card (the skull). I won’t belabor the rules. You can find them here.

I will say that Skull was a great time. Groups of 4-7 of us ended up playing multiple rounds. My parents, usually reserved players of card games, were shouting out loud when someone flipped a skull. My friend who usually hangs back and plays defensively went all-out betting high. She was the first one eliminated, but she went out with a bang!

Skull is what is sometimes described as elegant, or what I like to think of as parsimonious. It has a high ratio of enjoyment and gameplay decisions to rules and components. While I have usually thought of this concept as a straightforward ratio (1:1, 1:2, etc.), I think it can be useful to map it as multiple, overlapping ratios. How many gameplay decisions are generated by how many rules? Think of Twilight Imperium as high on both: Lots of rules for lots of cool decisions. It is a 1:1 on this scale. Or, the other scale: How much fun is generated by how many components? Again, Twilight Imperium comes out as a 1:1 — lots of components, lots of fun.

Skull (and other elegant or parsimonious games) succeeds because it scores high on both aspects. A few simple rules about turn order and betting generate some complex bluffing play akin to more rules-heavy bluffing games like Resistance or Netrunner. On components, too, Skull scores very high. With less than a full deck of cards, you get a game that almost begs to be played repeatedly.

These pairings can be remapped (components : gameplay decisions; rules : fun) but the notion still holds: When mapping for parsimony, consider multiple outcomes.

All of this about ratios and numerical values is of course arbitrary, as is any talk of “enjoyment.” One group’s play might not score as high as my family and friends’ plays over the holiday scored. Nonetheless, I cannot recommend Skull highly enough. Learn the rules, and be ready to find a deck of cards, and you will never want for entertainment that rivals the best the board gaming hobby has to offer.

PAX Unplugged Coffee Recommendations

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Now that the 2017 Essen Spiel Fair is over, the board gaming hype machine is turning itself towards my hometown, Philadelphia, for the first-ever PAX Unplugged! I’ll be in attendance, but this little update isn’t about my con experience, it’s about yours: In particular, your coffee experience! I spent 7 years working in specialty coffee, so I have lots of opinions about the subject, including the following:

  1. Hotel and convention center coffee is terrible (I was a wholesale salesperson with hotel and convention center accounts, so believe me, I know).
  2. Chain coffee isn’t much better.
  3. Local shops have character, vibes, and (often but not always) the best coffee around.
  4. Philly is a sleeper hit when it comes to the specialty coffee scene. Outside of the West Coast and Chicago, you can’t find a better coffee city than Philly (New York: You know I’m right. Don’t @ me).

So, when you’re in town for PAX Unplugged, here are my recommendations, helpfully sorted by proximity to the convention center…

LESS THAN A MILE: Go for a walk!

ELIXR: Hidden away on an alley behind a Chipotle, this is a locally-owned roasting company with a great staff. Few tables and a long line mean you should probably order to-go. Their direct relationships with farms in Guatemala mean that their late-fall offerings are incredible. 207 S. Sydenham St.

SQUARE ONE: Roasting in Lancaster, but with 2 locations in Philadelphia, about equidistant from the convention center. Thirteenth street is my favorite of these two locations: Bright and spacious, with plenty of seating and big communal table you can use for an off-site board game if you want. 249 S 13th St. or 1811 JFK Blvd.

MENAGERIE: Right in the heart of Old City, and not far from gamer/techie hub N3RD ST., Menagerie makes a great cup of coffee, usually from hard-to-find-on-the-East-Coast Midwestern roasters. If they have Ruby Roasters on the menu, get it!  18 S. 3rd St.

ONE TO THREE MILES: Grab a bikeshare or a Lyft!

ULTIMO: One of the city’s specialty coffee pioneers just started roasting their own coffee about a year and a half ago. Their espresso program, featuring single origins and cocktail-like signature beverages is a must. While the Catharine Street location is closer, the Fifteenth Street shop shares space with a craft beer bottle shop. 2149 Catharine St. or 1900 S. 15th st.

REANIMATOR: Super-light roasted beans from some of the best importers in the world. This minimalist, nordic style of coffee isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, you’ll LOVE it. Also the only place on this list where you can get a cup in the roasting facility itself! Full disclosure, I used to work here, and I absolutely love it. 310 Master St. (the roastery) or 1523 E. Susquehanna St.

LA COLOMBE: Philly’s most famous coffee brand is also its least consistent (sorry La Colombe!). The exception: The Frankford Ave flagship store, where the company’s top baristas showcase its excellent “workshop” brand of coffees. This spot also plays host to a restaurant, bakery, and rum distillery. Not my favorite place on this list, but worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

Designer’s Diary: Leviathan I

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My asymmetrical tabletop card-combat microgame was recently picked up by Past Go Games, and we’re planning for a Kickstarter launch on Oct. 9! Get the print and play here. Here are some of my thoughts on making this game:

I made this game, in short, because I love Moby-Dick. It’s my favorite book, for too many reasons to list here. I first read Moby-Dick while living, studying, and working at the Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. The museum houses the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world. I studied, sang chanteys, and even spent a night board the Morgan, and that made reading Moby-Dick feel even more real to me.

But the book is daunting — with chapters that read like Shakespearean drama, science textbooks, introspective contemporary fiction, and swashbuckling sea stories, it’s a stylistic jumble that does not open itself to the reader at first glance. I wanted to give readers an easy way to appreciate Moby-Dick, and Leviathan is hopefully that. A whale-themed game was rolling around in my head, but I actually started work in earnest to create an entry for a micro-game contest. Pretty quickly, I realized that I wanted to make a micro-game that used the table space differently. My hope was to use the “the table is the board” aspect of wargames in a non-war-themed game. Leviathan didn’t quite meet that criteria (Ahab and Moby are undoubtedly at war with each other), but it tweaked the theme enough that I felt comfortable developing it further, knowing that it would stand out. My favorite thing about Leviathan is the suspense. I love hidden movement games, but the need for a paper and pencil in many of them strikes me as inelegant. When I’m playing Leviathan as Ahab, seeing the six shadowy whales surging across the table towards my flimsy boats is terrifying!

Leviathan’s asymmetry is also something I’m very happy with. By making each side play differently, Leviathan invites you to see things from the other side, sometimes immediately; many players, whether having won or lost as the Whales, immediately want to switch sides and play as Ahab.

The game’s working title came from one of the many names that Melville gives to whales as a whole. Leviathan is also referenced in the Bible, as a mysterious sea-monster, and as the title of Thomas Hobbes’s famous political treatise. I love the contrast of a big-sounding title for a micro-sized game, so (with the good advice of my publisher) the title stuck. As Melville writes “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea” and (meaning no offense to Circus Flohcati) I think the same notion applies to thematic games.

Critical Modifications

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I gave a talk at a conference, and you can watch it here! Huge thanks to Tony and the folks at Lets Play PA for putting this conference together, and for putting all of the talks online so that others can see them.

There were a few kids in the room, which limited my content a little bit, and we broke for an activity, after which they shut off the recording, so the end of the talk was elided, but the full slideshow is viewable here.