Cope

James Wallis levels with you

Death and life in Scandinavia

It is a church of modern design, its interior bright and wooden. About thirty people are listening from the pews as a man in his late sixties talks about death. Outside, nearby, there is a conference. Inside there is a magic circle, a temporary autonomous zone, a place with its own rules.

He talks about death: he talks about his own death. Cancer of the liver has come close to destroying him, you can see it in his face, and he speaks of that. Before that, some years earlier a catastrophic almost-accident with a lorry on a busy motorway. And in the sixties, not long after he became the person who introduced LSD to Sweden, around the time he was put on trial for high treason, a terrifying acid trip in which he was forced to confront the embodiment of his mortality and the destruction of all things.

Somewhere behind us music begins softly, ambient and transcendental. It is only later that we realise it is a perfect coincidence bleeding through from a dance workshop next door.

And then effortlessly he brings us around to his real subject: the portrayal and experience of death in art. Our art. Which is not like other arts.

This was absolutely the best session I have ever attended at a games event. I’ve been going to games events for more than thirty years, across three continents. I’ve created some, chaired others, run sessions and talks and workshops at many. This was not like any of them. This was something else.

This is Knutpunkt, the annual Nordic Larp conference, held this year in Sweden. I’ve been saying for a while that if you’re interested in the field of interactive story then Nordic Larp is where the really interesting stuff is happening, but that opinion was mostly based on a second-hand understanding of the scene, received from conversations and books and blogs and PhD theses. I thought it was time I actually experienced it for myself.

I can’t describe Knutpunkt. Not in detail. It’s like diving into a hot-tub crowded with three hundred of the most interesting people you’ve never met before. There is so much going on in this arena that’s barely touched anywhere else, from descriptions of epic Russian larps with thousands of attendees, to scholarly work and hour-long presentations defining a new term in the critical vocabulary of the field, to transgressive, gender-queer and straight-out sexual games, and ones that deal with sexual issues and death in a mature and moving way. Quite a lot of parties, dressing up and dancing. Dancing larps are a thing, there was a whole tango larp recently. I missed the Drag King Fight Club, but apparently there was actual pugilism, though I believe I’m supposed to not talk about it. And a talk in a church about death.

It’s a very Scandinavian event but there were more people from England and Ireland at Knutpunkt this year than ever before. Not all of them were gamers: there were theatre people, film-makers, choreographers and artists. Word is spreading that something really fresh and very cool is happening here. Next year the conference is in Denmark, and by then I hope a few more of you will have had a chance to play a Nordic larp or at least had a chance to read more about it—the award-winning Nordic Larp book by Jaako Stenros and Markus Montola is now available as a free PDF. If you do, and if you feel even the slightest interest, then even if Elge isn’t speaking about death or if there isn’t a church for him to speak in next time, four days at Knutpunkt may (with apologies to Gen Con) be the best four days of gaming you’ve ever experienced.

A Knutebook Larp Design Reader

A slide from a splendid Knutepunkt 2014 presentation by Eirik Fatland


Workshop till you drop

Runnning a game-design workshop at the Virgin Media Game Space, September 2013

Runnning a game-design workshop at the Virgin Media Game Space, September 2013. Pic by David Hayward

I run a half-day games-design workshop. It started about six years ago as a one-off that transformed into a regular lecturing gig at the University of Westminster, and has become a centre-piece of my games-consultancy portfolio. So far in 2013 I’ve run it for students (quite a lot of students), for corporate clients, at an academic conference, at games events, in the Virgin Media Game Space, and on an island in a fjord.

It’s not just one workshop, it’s one of three or four depending on who I’m running it for and what they want to learn and practise. At its most basic it’s a three-hour crash course in concepting, developing, testing and iterating a design for a creative project. The more advanced version is about learning core methodologies behind paper prototyping and rapid iteration, and the thought processes needed to use them properly. The top-dollar level is about team-structuring and nurturing, negotiation, managing creatives and creative energy, and learning how to build on failure to succeed. All through the medium of engineering a tabletop game from scratch in three hours.

(For reasons I’ll describe in a future post, I believe that games are the perfect medium for this kind of exercise. I’d do it here but I’m trying to keep this focused. But games are unusually responsive to rapid change, and it’s easy to make interations in the design on the fly and evaluate those designs quickly and effectively. Also they’re fun.)

If you’re interested in any of this—at any of the levels described above—then I’m running the workshop on the evening of Tuesday 15th October, at Hub Westminster in central London. It’s called ‘Finding the Fun: Game Design & Iteration at High-speed‘ and it’s a three-hour session, after which we will go for a drink. This one is ticketed (it’s being run by the splendid people at Event Handler, who are also organising the awesome-looking Geeky in November) but because you’re the kind of person who reads my blog, if you enter the special mate-of-James code ‘ilovegames’ at the checkout you’ll get 20% off the workshop ticket price. We tight? We tight.

If you’ve got any questions about the workshop, how it runs, its learning objectives and so on, or you want to nudge me about that post on why games are the best test-bed for rapid prototyping methodologies, or you’d like to book me to run the workshop for you, please drop me a line.

 


A Spot of Brother

Screenshot from Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons

I spent the day of the GTA V launch playing Brothers, a download-only title created by Swedish film director Josef Fares, developed by Starbreeze Studios and published by 505 Games. It’s a three-hour game that’s won comparisons with Journey and Fable for its story and the emotional response that it evokes.

Brothers is the story of two boys who must journey to the Tree of Life to find a way to cure their ailing father. Played with a console controller, each of the joysticks controls one of the brothers, with the triggers working as ‘do stuff’ buttons for the two characters. From these simple controls the game wrings some nuanced, involving and clever gameplay, and is refreshingly combat-light. It is also deeply entrenched in decades-old attitudes to game narrative, and the fact that it picked up glowing praise for its storytelling is sad and worrying.

First of all, the gameplay and its narrative is completely linear. Either you do what the game wants, in the order it wants, or you won’t finish it. It’s unlikely you’ll get stuck on a puzzle as this is not a taxing game, but if you did then that’s the end of your playtime. It’s not quite as bad as ‘push button, get plot’ but it’s not far off.

As the player you do occasionally get a chance to stray off the linear path, to do side-quests or take part in minor incidents that add colour to the game and achievement points to your gamer-score. On one level, this is kind of interesting: achievements in Brothers don’t function as rewards for passing checkpoints and it would be possible to finish the game without getting any. On the other hand the delight in finding these vignettes was reward enough: to get an achievement for them felt as if I was doing them for the wrong reason. An easter egg is its own reward; and in a time-critical mission getting points for spending time doing other stuff sends a very mixed message.

You’ll be glad to hear that in a game about two boys saving a man, there are female characters.  You’ll be less glad to hear that two of them are hostages who need to be rescued, one is a bitch who tries to kill you, and one is already dead. That’s it for women. No, wait, I tell a lie. You get the game’s second achievement by taking a ball from a little girl and throwing it down a well. The girl cries and you get 20 points. This serves to establish at the start of the game that your characters will be rewarded for being cruel arseholes, a theme that is not repeated anywhere else. So much for characterisation through gameplay.

Someone important dies near the end. You may have guessed this would happen, given the game’s title and theme, so I won’t go into details. But I will say that the death happens in a cut-scene and there is no way to prevent it. In fact its presentation is quite similar to the most famous video-game death of all, the murder of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII, only less affecting. Mostly it’s frustrating.

And there are the usual complaints about how bits of the world don’t fit together or make sense (people wear shorts and short-sleeves in snow, there are mine levels with no way for workers to get down or up from where they’re working, castle defences apparently constructed for the sole purpose of having boys scale them, inventors happy for a couple of vagrants to take their greatest creation: you know the score). The first three chapters are very good indeed, but there’s a big shift in tone after that and although the game’s visuals and atmosphere remain strong, the coherence begins to break down into cliche—narratively and in terms of gameplay too. Puzzles become weaker and more perfunctory, and with the exception of one sweet moment near the end, gameplay and narrative split into two. Key deaths in cut-scenes? In 2013? Really?

Brothers is not Journey or Ico, nowhere close to them. It does have similarities to Fable, another game with a troubled narrative, but Fable came out nine years ago. Is the video-game form really moving so slowly that the Daily Telegraph can say that Brothers ‘weds narrative and mechanics to captivating effect’? Apparently so.

Worth playing? If that’s what you want to take away from this then yes, it’s worth playing. You will be charmed and delighted, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be underwhelmed too.

(Correction: an earlier version said the ball-in-the-well was the first achievement in the game. It isn’t, it’s the second. Apologies.)


A fistful of updates

It has been pointed out to me that I’ve not followed up on a number of posts from earlier this year. So here’s what happened:

  • The 2013 Diana Jones Award, which I wrote about here, was won by Tabletop and Wil Wheaton. You can see Matt Forbeck’s presentation and Wil’s acceptance speech on Youtube here.
  • The CricketJam meetup, proposed here, was sparsely attended but was a fantastic day out. The match’s sponsors Davidstow had organised a village fete with various traditional English games and so I had the pleasure of demonstrating to games-people what a nasty, vicious game croquet really is. Drinks were drunk, talks were tunk, and Cleator CC from Cumbria beat Rockhampton CC of Gloucestershire in a fantastic nail-biter of a battle that went right down to the last wicket and the final few balls. Congratulations to both teams for a splendid match and some of the most entertaining cricket of the summer. There will be another CricketJam next year, and you would be a fool not to attend.
  • I have still not finished writing Alas Vegas.

 


The People’s Revolutionary Committee

The People's Revolution needs you, comrades!

The People’s Revolution needs you, comrades!

Comrades!

The People’s Revolutionary Committee is a large-scale sort-of-game, almost a larp, where everybody is gripped by a collective madness and spends a frantic session creating a new culture for the world of games, mostly by eradicating the old one. I created it almost twenty years ago, and have run it at games events and conventions around the world. It’s These rules describe how to run it: they’ve been on my hard-drive for more than a decade waiting for me to do something with them, and I finally realised that the right something is to release them onto the net.

The PRC isn’t exclusive to games events, obviously. It can be run at any kind of large gathering, but it tends to go better with people who know each other or who work in the same industry, and who have a playful spirit, so games is a natural home for it. The hands-down best session I ever ran was an industry-only gathering on the Saturday night of a Gen Con in the late 90s, when everybody was exhausted and full of piss and bile after a hard day on the show floor. It went on for hours, hundreds of people died in horrible ways (offstage there was a pit filled with grotesquely defiled corpses and, for some reason, badgers), and it remains one of the most cathartic and hilarious experiences of my life.

Anyway, comrades, here’s the rules for the People’s Revolutionary Committee, a sort-of game of public speaking, catharsis, and and making a better world by shooting people.

 

The People’s Revolutionary Committee

A convention event created by James Wallis

The Revolution has come, comrades! The old marching-order has been swept away by the owlbears of change, the lickspittle character-class traitors have been captured, and a glorious new dawn waits to rise over the world of gaming. You are hereby recruited to the People’s Revolutionary Committee Gaming Sub-Committee (being people, you are eligible; being gamers you are qualified; being at a games event you are probably guilty) and it is your job to put the villains of the games world on trial for their crimes against the People, give a fair hearing to the evidence for and against them, and shoot them.

The People’s Revolutionary Committee is the Moscow Show-Trials for games, or if you prefer the McCarthy Hearings for games (‘Are you now or have you ever been a Munchkin supplement?’). It is a 60-90-minute event requiring one moderator with a watch and an audience of participants. It was designed for games conventions but can be adapted to fit other types of event without trouble, and would probably work on a web forum or mailing list too. At events it works best in the late afternoon or evening, or whenever people have built up a head of spleen and want to vent it.

The tone and vocabulary are borrowed from any fringe political gathering. The audience should understand that nothing that happens in the PRC is to be taken seriously or personally, though the moderator should never say that out loud. Stating that something is ‘just a bit of fun’ is a good way of killing it dead.

The event runs according to a strict format, and doesn’t work if that format isn’t followed. Things go as follows:

1. People gather in a place, ideally where there is booze. Critical mass is about fifteen; more than that is great. The moderator, in the persona of the People’s Judge, briefly explains what the PRC is and how it works, and says ‘Comrades!’ (or ‘My fellow Americans!’) too much.

2. The moderator calls for suggestions for the first case to be tried. Anyone on the PRC (including the moderator) can nominate any aspect of gaming to be put on trial for its crimes against the Revolution. This can be a game or product, a company, a person, an event, a trend or tendency, a publication, a group, a hashtag, and so on. Nominations should be at least vaguely connected to the subject of the convention.

2a. The moderator can reject the nomination if they think doing so is valid, justified or funny (e.g. ‘We’ve already shot them three times this evening.’) Otherwise the nomination is accepted.

2b. ‘Crimes against the Revolution’ is deliberately left nebulous, as is the nature of the Revolution itself. Things may be tried for being bad, unpopular, too popular, too successful, too expensive, over-productive, under-productive, too complex, not complex enough, too intelligent, too stupid, out of date, smug, pretentious, not knowing what ‘pretentious’ means, behaving in a reprehensible manner, or being generally objectionable. Go with it. The PRC is all about letting people get things out of their system.

3. The accuser comes to the front of the room and makes a speech no longer than two minutes explaining why their nomination is guilty of crimes against the People and the Revolution. The moderator watches the time and cuts them off if they exceed it.

4. The moderator asks if anyone wishes to defend the nomination, and picks a volunteer from the audience to do this. If the nomination is someone who is present, or that has representatives in the audience, they should be the moderator’s first choice. If there is no defendant, move straight to a vote (see 8 below) because it’s usually a sign that people aren’t interested and you need to get to the next topic fast.

5. The defendant comes to the front of the room and makes a two-minute speech in defence of the nomination.

6. If things are going well and the nomination is a contentious or controversial one, the moderator can repeat 3–5 with new accusers and defendants.

7. The moderator takes points of information and points of order from members of the audience, preferably ones who have not already spoken.

7a. A point of information is a short and pithy statement about the nomination, or possibly about the accuser or the defendant. The moderator should be careful not to let this turn into a speech for the accusation or the defence.

7b. A point of order is a procedural matter concerning the running of the meeting. Often this will be that the Committee should move straight to a vote on this matter. Others may try to have members of the meeting banned from speaking on the grounds that they are biased, have undeclared interests, or were shot earlier. The moderator should judge each of these on their merits and how they’re likely to affect the tone and pace of the meeting.

8. Once there are no more points of information or order, the moderator calls for a vote on the guilt or innocence of the nomination. This is decided on a show of hands. Try to avoid counts or recounts if you can.

8a. If the nomination is found innocent, it cannot be tried again this session.

8b. If the nomination is found guilty, it is declared to have been taken out and shot. No further action is taken against them: no ridicule, and absolutely nothing physical. Some moderators choose to ban any persons shot from speaking in the rest of the session, but that is generally considered bad form and also cuts off many potential sources of humour. Some groups choose to make up imaginative punishments for their victims; this can be very funny or deeply tedious, so be careful.

8c. Each of the cases should last around five minutes.

8d. The PRC event as a whole should be fast-moving and ruthless. You should be aiming for a kill-rate around 85–90%. Clemency is a type of tangerine, not something that has anything to do with revolutionary committees.

9. At some point the moderator will find themselves on trial. This is inevitable. Don’t sweat it. It doesn’t mean they hate you. If the moderator is found guilty of crimes against the Revolution, it’s their call whether they should stand down and let someone else take over – but any replacement should know the rules of the PRC before taking the chair.

10. Once the PRC’s allotted time is over, the moderator thanks the audience for their good work in the name of the Revolution and declares that they will meet again in a month or a year. The Committee then disbands and, if not already there, goes to the bar.

The moderator has various important jobs: to make sure that all members of the audience get a fair crack of the whip, to make sure that debates don’t drag on or become hideously one-sided, to make sure that anyone shot is not the victim of any kind of retaliation and doesn’t get upset; not to hog the limelight; and to address all speakers as ‘Comrade [name]‘.

Most importantly they should never forget their main job is to make the audience laugh and have a good time. The Committee should never get bogged down in bureaucracy, to-and-fro arguments over tedious or minor points, or personal score-settling. If it does, declare them all shot for slowing down the pace of the glorious Revolution and move on to the next case.

That’s it. Have fun. Long live the People’s Revolution!


Sticky Wickets: Cricket Jam at Lords

Autumn, the season of mellow teas and fruitiness, the time when the sublime meridian of the English summer, Test Match Special, gives way to the braying of Match of the Day. There is still a little cricket to be played, a few un-wasped plums left on the tree. It is time to make some jam.

I love cricket, as you may know. I love the game, I love its atmosphere, its culture, its history, its love of statistics and trivia, its rituals, and the fact that at cricket matches the bars are open at ten in the morning and everyone thinks that’s okay.

I have a proposal.

Lords, the home of cricket, lies north-west of Regents Park, close by the Jubilee Line. On Sunday 8th September (yes, this Sunday) it will host the final of the Davidstow National Village Cup final, between Rockhampton of Gloucestershire and Cleator of Cumbria.

I do not care that you have never heard of Rockhampton of Gloucestershire and Cleator of Cumbria. Neither have I, and that is the point. This is the zenith of the non-professional season. No egos; no names or faces you’d recognise. Just the game at its most beautiful.

The village cricket final is always ridiculously under-attended, and it’s twelve pounds to get in. Twelve pounds for a day of cricket at Lords, with money back if it’s rained off. It would be churlish to refuse. And—here’s the plan—not just with other people who love cricket, but with people who love games. And cricket. And games people who are intrigued by cricket but have never had a chance to experience it properly.

I’m calling a Cricket Jam. Let us descend upon Lords, bringing picnics and portable games (small ones), and sit and chat and play and eat and drink and watch the cream of British amateur cricket battle for once-in-a-lifetime-glory on the fabled sward. And listen to the England–Australia ODI at Old Trafford via TMS.

If you think that sounds like a perfect way to spend a lazy late-summer Sunday, click on this cricket-jam+subscribe@googlegroups.com which will subscribe you to a mailing list so we can count numbers and arrange where to meet.

Gates open at ten, play starts at eleven, and with forty overs a side it should be done by six. You don’t have to be there at the start, or the end. You can buy tickets on the day, or preorder them by calling 020 7432 1000.

Hope to see you there, and please spread the word.


And the winner of the 2013 Diana Jones Award is…

By the time you read this, you’ll probably know what or who has won the 2013 Diana Jones Award for Excellence in Gaming. I know already, in fact I’ve known for a few weeks because I’m the guy who counts the votes. And while I’m not going to give anything away in case someone sneaks a last-minute bet with some gullible friend, I will say that there were only a couple of votes between the winner and second-place; and the DJA has a long track record of not giving the award to the favourite.

I think this year’s DJA shortlist is one of the strongest we’ve ever had. It’s marvellously diverse—a small-press RPG that tackles some serious subjects, a genre-creating card-game, a history of the game that created the RPG hobby, a unique convention for games designers and enthusiasts, and a web-video series that has brought tabletop gaming to a whole new audience—and this is exactly the kind of diversity that the DJA was created to celebrate. I had a very hard time deciding how to cast my ballot (we use the Single Transferable Vote system, as the original bespoke voting system proved too easy to game, which is a bad idea when games designers are present).

Contains genuine Nazi (tm)

The Diana Jones Award trophy.

There is one Diana Jones Award awarded each year, and we give it to the single best thing we can find in gaming. Some years it’s like chasing a needle in a haystack. Other years, like this one, you can’t see the hay for the needles. Back in 2000 I set up the Diana Jones Award because I was fed up of the Origins Awards, which at the time was the major award for the games industry but had become a relentless, myopic, product-driven popularity contest. There were no surprises: winning was as simple as motivating your company’s fans to stuff the ballot boxes in sufficient quantities. I felt there was room for an award that championed what was great about gaming, wherever it came from, and whether it sold five hundred copies or five million.

Setting up an award, it turns out, is ridiculously easy. Work out what the award is for and how it’s going to operate, ask a few friends to help out, get some kind of logo or trophy that looks neat, send out a press release and you’re away. The administration infrastructure of the DJA boils down to an invitation-only mailing list, a website, and an annual party the night before Gen Con opens. The inestimable Matt Forbeck has organised all the parties since the very first on a sticky evening in Milwaukee, and has arranged the sponsorship for them too. That is pretty much the full extent of the organisation. The biggest problem we have each year is me remembering when to ask people to send in their nominations.

This is the fourteenth year that we’ve presented the Diana Jones Award. The original ‘we’ in the year 2000 was a substantially different group of people to the ‘we’ of 2013: there’s a hardcore of members but others have come and gone, and we periodically invite new folk to our group of what I once described as ‘games industry alumni and illuminati’. I can’t tell you who is on the committee because we agree to keep each other’s identities secret, but it is a pleasure to share a mailing list with them, and occasionally I look at the list of other DJA members and wonder what the hell I’m doing among these amazing and talented people.

And of all the things I’ve done in the games industry, the Diana Jones Award is the one I’m proudest of. Creating a business model that allowed British and European RPG publishers to compete with Americans for the first time, creating the story-games genre by accident, giving a first break to now-famous artists and writers—that’s all well and good. But I think the Diana Jones Award has made a difference in gaming, by setting a notional high-water mark and encouraging people to aim for it. Whatever you do in this industry or this hobby, the DJA says, if you do it well enough then you will be recognised for that.

How much of a difference the DJA has made, I really don’t know. But I’ve had lovely messages from people who were shortlisted, telling me how important this recognition was to them, and how much of a spur to their ambition it has been. Really, winning the DJA boils down to getting to have a silly trophy on your mantelpiece for a year, and knowing that a bunch of people whose identities you don’t know think you do awesome stuff. But in a few hours Matt Forbeck will pick up a microphone and tell someone who has worked incredibly hard to produce something truly excellent in gaming that their effort has been recognised by their peers, and that’s enough reason to justify the award’s existence.

I won’t be at the award ceremony. I’ve not been to Gen Con for over ten years. But I’ll be there in spirit. I think it’ll be a good one.


Alas Vegas major arcana complete

John Coulthart has completed all 22 cards of the major arcana of the Vegas Tarot, which he has been working on since the Kickstarter for my forthcoming RPG Alas Vegas finished at the start of March. What’s more he’s put them all up on his website, with descriptions of the inspirations and influences behind them. It’s a stunning piece of work.

The cards were commissioned to be the interior artwork of Alas Vegas, but the reaction to them has been so overwhelmingly positive that we are planning to run another Kickstarter to fund the production of a complete Tarot deck later this year. The plan is to recruit four more artists, each to handle one of the four suits. We’re undecided whether to leave the cards in black-and-white, or to colour them—colour would be the more commercial choice, but the hard-edged starkness of these images almost begs to be left alone. If anything this sharp would ever beg.

Kickstarter backers who pledged for an art print can expect a survey in the near future to ask which of the 22 images they’d like to receive. The rest of you will have to hold your breath for the game itself.


Agricola (other brands of cola are available)

I host a semi-regular games evening, in which we catch up on modern classics that we should have played years ago. Afterwards I usually send an email round to the group with a summary of what we’ve learned—the overview of Tales of the Arabian Nights 3e a few weeks back was one of them. Here’s another, and there may be more.

 * * *

So: Agricola. The #2-rated game on BoardGameGeek, the catalogue of all tabletop games ever. An eurogamic simulation of competitive farming in seventeenth-century Germany. Hundreds of cards, hundreds of little wooden bits, what feels like hundreds of rules. Intimidating.

Thankfully the rulebook is well structured, everything fell into place quickly and within a the first few minutes we made a key realization: this is the game that Lords of Waterdeep nicked its core mechanic from. On your turn you get a choice of actions, but once you’ve chosen one you put a counter on its space on the board and nobody else can choose it for the rest of that round. It makes more logical sense in Lords of Waterdeep, where each action is represented by a building that your faction takes control of, but even though it doesn’t really fit with farming (“what do you mean, nobody else can sow any crops this round?”) it works a lot better in Agricola.

The game quickly switches from a jolly romp of building pastures for sheep and bolting extensions onto your house to make room for your children into a bitter and increasingly tough fight to save your family from starvation, and trying to generate enough extra resources to maybe expand your farm just a little AUGH NO NOW WE MUST EAT MY DAUGHTER’S PET COW OR PERISH or at least pick up a ‘begging’ card with its whopping –3 score for each person you can’t feed.

And then suddenly it’s over and you have to add up your points, and that’s all a bit dissatisfying because it is completely not obvious while you were playing who was actually winning. A bit like Carcassonne, the gameplay is lovely involving clever fun and you can see exactly why people rate it so highly, and then there’s the abrupt shift of gears into working out numbers and adding them up. There’s a scoring pad in the box. It’s that kind of game.

Ben won, I think I’m right in saying. I scraped in second despite having basically starved my entire family to death at the end of round 2. Kevan misinterpreted one of the scoring rules and although he played a blinder and was set up to outbreed and outfarm us all, ended up third because he’d not built enough fields. That kind of game.

It is brilliant, though. The game is beautifully balanced, and it quickly becomes apparent that where it’s balanced is on a knife-edge. The complexity is perfectly structured, the metaphors hold together so you feel you’re building a farm instead of juggling numbers and bits of wood, and although the only direct competition is for the unique resource spaces, it’s enough to stop the game ever feeling like everyone’s playing solo on the same board.

We were playing the introductory ‘family’ version, and we all came away with a suspicion that the more complex versions (its cards are included in the basic box) might actually be easier to play without everyone starving to death each turn, and there might be more variety in playing it with four or five people. It’s one of those games that will improve enormously when you’re au fait with the structure and the way it unfolds, or at least when you’re playing with people who are.

Ben had to shoot off after that, so Kevan and I played some two-handed Love Letter. I have played a lot of LL in the last week, and I think we can conclusively say it’s a 3-4-player game. It works for two but it’s not enormously satisfying, and the card-mix pretty much guarantees that you never get to the end of 16-card deck. Still clever, still fun, still massively in the lead for the game I play the most this year, but nowhere near as compelling—or as tactical. But that’s not going to break my habit of carrying it with me in my laptop bag, next to my hip-flask. That sort of game.


Hyper Camp: gaming is an island

Hudøy is a small island in the Oslo Fjord, about eighty kilometres south of Oslo itself. A five-minute boat-trip from the shore, it lies on the western side of the channel: a low rocky jigsaw-piece measuring about one kilometre by two, covered in light woodland and a collection of wooden buildings of various sizes: meeting-rooms, eating-halls, dormitories. It is owned by the City of Oslo, and for most of the summer it is used as a holiday camp for disadvantaged children from the capital.

For the last two years Hyperion, the federation of Norwegian gamers, has rented the island for a week in the summer to create Hyper Camp, an—actually I can’t think of a single word that covers what Hyper Camp is. A getaway for around a hundred games players, thinkers and designers aged 14–24, a training ground, a summer camp, a peer-bonding session, an away-week for the future loci and Lokis of the games world. Whatever it is, there should be more like it.

Approaching Hudoy

Hyperion arranges for experts and tutors to visit the camp: where they can’t source them locally they fly them in. Flying in for Hyper Camp 2013 were me and Dr Simon McCallum; we’d met at a DiGRA conference a couple of years before and had bonded over cricket. Cricket was about the only thing that Hyper Camp didn’t offer, though I’m sure if we’d proposed it we’d have got volunteers for a couple of teams.

I was there to run workshops on board-game design and RPG design. Other activities included larps and larp workshops ranging from equipment-making to prosthetic make-up, e-sports, plus miniature gaming, roleplay, and even how to run organisations like Hyperion. Simon had brought an Oculus Rift dev-kit which his students had rigged with a Kinect, a Wii balance board and a Wiimote to create a proper sense of embodiment in the virtual world: being able to move your arms and see them move in an immersive VR world brings a whole new dimension of being-there to the experience. In the evening there were larps.

Larp workshop

The students I had for my game-design workshops were excellent. Norway doesn’t have much of a home-grown tabletop games industry, and the people at the RPG workshop were only able to name three Norwegian-produced RPGs, at least one of them out of print, and most of the play seems to be big-name US games like D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun and Warhammer FRP (more second-edition than third, interestingly). But there were intelligent questions about crowd-funding and self-publishing. This is not an inward-looking scene. The questions I get most often in the UK and USA, about getting material published for existing games, didn’t come up.

The board-game workshop was particularly strong. Each of the three groups produced a game that was intelligent, tactical and not obviously based on anything I’d seen before. Admittedly my understanding of the design and play were compromised by the fact I don’t speak or read Norwegian (everyone at Hyper Camp spoke English to a remarkably high degree so I could lecture in my mother tongue—this is an incredible privilege for native English speakers visiting Scandinavia, and an indictment of the standard of foreign-language teaching in the UK) but people seemed to be having fun, and the critiques were positive and useful. I dont know if I’d have recommended any of them to a publisher, but if I spoke better Norwegian who knows?

Game design workshop at Hypercamp

I am thoroughly impressed with Norwegian gamers. In my earlier post I described how Hyperion is able to exist, but what I didn’t talk about is the effect this has on Nordic gaming culture. There’s a cohesion there, a community and a sense of communication that I’ve only found in a few other places—Ireland comes to mind, but in Ireland it’s been brute-forced through an extraordinary collection of conventions and local clubs and societies. In Norway the state seems to have gone out of its way to make this kind of networking arise organically from the needs of the group. I’m not sure if it’s cultural or political, but it’s wonderful.

Hudøy isn’t plush. The beds were small and a little spartan: the loos were earth-closets, the food was basic. Norway may have the third-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world but that doesn’t mean its inhabitants live like royalty. But it all adds to the sense that Hyper Camp is a removal from the ordinary world and from regular constraints: this is a place where new ideas can be thought, new projects can be planted, and new worlds can be shaped into existence.

Hudoy main buildings

I had a fanboy moment: I met Anita Myhre Andersen, the creator of the legendary larps 1942 and 1943—the last of which caused her to be banned from entering Belarus for life. 1942 is featured in the book Nordic Larp: it was a week-long recreation of a Norwegian village under the Nazi occupation, heavy not only on realism but also on resonance: some of the participants played their own parents and grandparents. Just reading about it is extraordinary; playing in it must have been life-changing. It’s the kind of experience I’d love to bring to the UK, and I have a few ideas about how. Fingers crossed.

tl;dr More of this sort of thing everywhere, please.

Sunset on Hudoy

Thanks to the organisers and volunteers of Hyper Camp for inviting me, Felix Vaager of Hyperion for being an excellent host, and particular thanks to amazing Hyperion volunteer Thomas for driving me at great speed to Oslo after I missed my train.