It is? Okay, on with the blog!
After making some good headway in the summer workshops with Alex I was keen to find another outlet to keep things going and, hey presto, up popped a little commission opportunity being offered by Camden People's Theatre. They were making an open call-out for projects for their 20:20 Vision Festival, a small theatre-fest celebrating the theatre's 20th birthday. The brief asked for project ideas that considered how the world has changed in the last 20 years and how it might change in the next 20, so I pitched an idea called Archipelago, a game about how the world has, arguably, become increasingly inter-connected and also increasingly divided in recent times.
Camden said yes to my pitch (woo-hoo) and offered a small grant to support the project (good egg). Next was to think about how to make something happen and it occurred to me that a) I would need some actors to help me develop the piece and b) I would need a designer to realise something functional but elegant for the game. It then occurred to me that I had wanted to work again with Bern Roche Farrelly, the guy who had made the game-like play, Determine, at The Yard, so I asked Bern if he might be keen to work on Archipelago and he said YES along with a fantastic group of my former East 15 students who conquered their initial bemusement about the fact that I wanted to design a game and put great effort into developing the project.
Following on from the summer workshop plan of starting small, the development of Archipelago started with a board game. The first version of the game involved players on three separate boards (separate islands) trying to gather enough resources to feed and shelter themselves and also educate themselves so that they could make new scientific discoveries! The scientific discovery bit was geared towards the islanders gaining the ability to travel, discover each other's existence, trade and, potentially, go to war with each other. Unfortunately this took such a long time that most players were very happy to just carry on doing their thing on their respective islands. Design fail.
The next iteration was about three islands who already knew about each other and who wanted to outdo each other to be the best in the Archipelago. This got cracking more quickly and was a much better way for the relative values of the resources to come into play. Essentially, the game was become a mix of resource management and diplomacy.
After the board game part, I designed a physically mobile game across a network of 12 rooms, representing the territory of the islands, but this time I added another strand to the game, with 2 superpowers vying for influence over the islanders. The physical dynamism was fun with lots of rushing around to get tasks done alongside the social interactions that the game required but the addition of the superpowers really enriched the whole thing. Basically, once the players had got a handle on the nuts and bolts of how the game worked, the superpowers would arrive and stick a rocket into everything. The main design idea was that the two superpowers were bent on destroying each other, so if an island formed a relationship with one of the big boys, they became a target for the other big dog. Cue - Drama!
All together, I think we did 8 play-tests. 2 on board game versions, 2 on large scale physical versions and 4 on playing the game in a single room (cos we knew this would be the scenario at Camden People's Theatre) but retaining dynamic physical tasks. Working with Bern on the development was great. He wasn't around for that many play-tests but offered feedback on all of the rule-set documents which I sent to him by email like secret service papers. What was amazing was the fact that although the previous project we'd worked together on wasn't a game, he seemed to pick up very quickly what the game terminology referred to and what various tweaks to the design would do to the play experience. The actors were great too. They were very suspicious about the project at first (a game?), but it was very heartening to see them recognise that the social interactions that emerged from play were inherently dramatic.
Moving into the theatre itself, I was pleasantly ignorant of who would be coming. To be honest, I hadn't made a huge effort to promote Archipelago, I was more busy making the thing alongside handling production tasks for The 100 We Are at the Yard. So, it was brilliant to see a good crowd of people I had never met before come in and get stuck into playing it. The majority of the crowd were like rabid animals vying for domination except one set of islanders who decided not to engage with any of the big superpowers and consequently won because neither of the superpowers tried to squeeze them! Peace won! For one of the playings, at least.
We didn't expect any press for the show cos it was a very short run but we got a nice write-up from The Upcoming. More than anything though, it was great that the audience participants actually played the game and got into it, applying themselves with vigour to the task. At the end of it all, the actors provided a good litmus test for how 'dramatically' successful the project had been. They were beaming. They seemed to be totally surprised and delighted that a metrical game had produced so much colourful behavioural interaction. I was delighted too, but not surprised. I knew that a game system could give rise to rich social interaction because we see it every day on the stock market floor and in the fruit market and in the debating chambers of every country. The main thing, for me, was that I had made my first game/drama project and it had WORKED.
Driving home on the last night, with a car full of buckets, paper, cardboard and other game stuff, I felt satisfied. Then, once satisfaction had passed, I was eager for more...!