Build, populate and maintain–these are the three stages of our game, VillageCraft. Those familiar with Mojang Studios’ Minecraft can see some similarities. Somewhat inspired by the concept of “crafting”–VillageCraft adds a more collaborative and hands-on twist as it takes the form of a board game. However, what makes VillageCraft most unique is its shifting environment as players pick challenge cards (more on this later)–making the players’ face more obstacles or gain advantage in achieving their goal.
Discovering What Makes a Game Impactful
In exploring Mary Flanagan’s Critical Play, games being able to disrupt prevailing ideologies or work through social issues is a big driver in our approach to creating VillageCraft. What better way to immerse yourself in a new idea than to build your very own game, right? So that’s what we decided to do.
It was very important that our game conveyed a core value–a fundamental belief that motivates a set of actions or promotes certain attitudes. As my team and I brainstormed possible values, we found our definition of “themes” vs. “values” blurring. Rather than focusing on a call to action, we sometimes strayed to thinking about aesthetic ideas, or broader values that needed narrowing down.
Initial Ideas and Iterations: Gills & Hairs
We went from ideas about a performative dress-up game to challenge gender expression, to mythical creatures or aliens going on quests, to an interactive narrative game where you can write letters to the characters and learn more about their lives. After many rounds of brainstorming, we found that we lacked a cohesive foundational value in our game as we tried to incorporate too many at once, or were too broad about them.
We knew we wanted to subvert the idea of binaries in society–topics like identity and how it is perceived differently in various communities. After more ideation, we honed in on cultivating open-mindedness in one’s expression of identity, or agency in one’s identity.
Our first iteration was actually called, Gills and Hairs. The idea starts with three characters: a fish, human, and a mermaid, and also takes on the form of a board game. The objective is for all three characters to build a village together. The conflict is that each player decides on whether to build the village using water or more land. As the game progresses, we see the way players might want to dominate one another to make the space more suitable for humans, or for fish, or work together to balance the space to host both land and water.
After going over our game, and play-testing, we realized there were issues between our idea of breaking binaries, vs. pushing players to think in binaries–which totally contradicted our goal of promoting the fluid spectrum of identities. We didn’t really have a clear cause and effect with our game mechanics, despite having a fun-twist on a very important topic. So… back to brainstorming and iterating we went.
Simplification and The Power of Pretending
A big thing we learned about our process as a team is that we are all huge over-thinkers. Not only are we over-thinkers, but some of us love to delve deep, explore ideas from multiple angles, and others can’t help but hop between every idea and “what if.” While this allows us to be insightful and creative in different ways–it hindered the process of cranking something concrete in the physical world in order to to iterate on and move forward. I don’t know who said it, but it’s true. To paraphrase…
Something done is better than a perfect nothing.
We would run ideas over and over–What about this, what about that? What if we did this? What if this instead? We had to just settle the heck down, and work with something–narrow down, build, and let it grow before hopping onto other possibilities. Perfectionistic tendencies are truly a pain in the — .
At a certain point, we realized if we didn’t buckle down and just make something–anything–we’d get nothing done. So that’s what we did. One hour. Simple mechanics. One by one. No bouncing with more ideas. We had to choose one and let it grow. We pretended like it was going to “just be a draft.” We pretended it wasn’t “anything good.” We pretended like we were just “doing it for fun.” To brainstorm. To see what might happen.
We pretended that we “didn’t care all that much”–when that couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The more we pretended, the less pressure we felt. The more we rationalized we just had to get something out–the more we just “did it.”
The Start of “Something Done”
We let ourselves roll with the punches. Initially, we were going to scrap everything from our Gills and Hairs iteration, but there was something simple, satisfying, and charming about the idea of collaboratively building a village together. So, we built on that. We kept the concept of the three stages:
- Build the Foundation
- Populate the Space
- Maintain the Community
What core value did we want to highlight this time? We focused on the collaborative aspect of the game. How might players interact–will they dominate each other, take the role of an ally, see the game as a competition, take on a teamwork mindset? How could we make this more interesting? Building a community together isn’t particularly easy, but it’s also pretty straightforward. We wanted to add some dynamic play–the idea of challenge cards to create a shifting environment balances out players’ agency and the spontaneity of random chance.
In another way, building a community in this dynamic way is a kind of manifestation of our productivity-obsessed lifestyles in western society. What can you contribute? Does one’s value lie simply on their ability to offer something to the group? Does our worthiness lie in power and domination? Is it weak to be an ally, or strong when you take the “every person for themselves route?” Is the worthiness of an individual inherent, or based on what they can produce?
Have we defined the individual as only holding value for what they can do, rather than simply for being who they are?
We got to building. What can be more simple than a board game made of grids? We expanded upon the idea of land and water and created a grid of green, blue, and red (red = restricted).
Ideally, we would have a deck of objectives where players can set up multiple rounds and offer more playability, but for the sake of our prototype, we created a default.
In order to build any of these structures, players must acquire elements such as: wood, brick or glass and “craft” them based on the recipe. To acquire wood, brick or glass, players roll an 8-sided dice each turn. The faces of the dice vary to indicate wood, brick or glass. Players keep these wood, brick or glass tokens on their corner or “inventory” in order to craft buildings later.
After rolling the “elements” dice (with the wood, brick, glass faces), players roll the “space” dice. This 8-sided dice just has numbers that indicate how many spaces you’re allowed to move collectively in your turn. You don’t have to move all at once. You can move a few spaces, then build something, move again then build something else until you use up your moves.
After this, if you rolled an odd number (1, 3, 5, 7) with the “space” dice, you get to pick a challenge card. We made it odd numbers only so players aren’t always getting obstacles or perks to disrupt the game environment, and so it is more of a supplement to the gameplay rather than the main focus.
If you pick a challenge card, follow the instructions, then you can use your resources to build whatever structure you’d like, or place them on a land (green) spot. As players place their wood, brick or glass on the board, they can collaboratively use resources to build the objective structures, like the house, or hospital. The board might look something like this when players build structures.
To recap–this is what players do in their turn:
1. Roll elements dice (wood, brick, glass)
2. Roll spaces dice (8 sides, movement)
3. Pick a challenge card when you roll an odd number. (1, 3, 5, 7)
4. Build/repair structures (use wood, brick, glass to craft based on recipes)
A Platform with Complicated UI
Another challenge we had was deciding on what platform to use for our game. We thought about tabletop stimulator, but since we were working virtually together online, it made it difficult to figure out who would purchase it, or whose computer we’d use, how we’d work together etc. (And low-key, we’re all broke college students).
Remember that section about the “Power of Pretending?” We really just went for a platform that had very little friction to get us moving forward. So the first thing we landed on was called, Gamestructor. While Gamestructor was pretty simple in use, and open to the public after you make an account, it was hardly intuitive to set up assets and the way the user-interface was set up for gameplay. The biggest thing was even figuring out how to host the game itself for a group of players.
To combat this, we took screenshots as we played it ourselves as a team, and drew instructions and arrows pointing at what icons meant and what they were for.
What We’ve Learned & Next Steps
Overall, making a fun game is no easy feat, let alone one that integrates a core value and ideas of critical play. It’s important to really simplify and specify the flow of your game idea, and continuously iterate. Simple game mechanics at the beginning is not only “okay” but even essentially when you’re just starting out. Don’t get stuck in perfectionism paralysis or zealous circling of endless possible ideas like we did at the start.
In the process of making VillageCraft, it’s funny in a way to see how we’ve implemented the idea of “build, populate, and maintain” in how we’ve explored critical game making. It’s quite meta, isn’t it?
Moving forward, we would love to create a physical board game with the pieces we’ve created with Gamestructor. Building our own grid board, tokens, and cards will allow us to really have fun with design, and the physical aspect of having tangible pieces will let our game shine through. Ultimately, we hoped for our game to really be a collaborative and fun experience in exploring community building and shifting environments. Of course, all while having fun, we also hope that players think about how collaboration and competition impact the way our society has defined the value of the individual.