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The Goodly Mist
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Mappa Mundi Dissected

October 10, 2012

mappa mundi


Writing and designing a boardgame is hard if you are very intelligent. I am such a person.

I cannot speak for the experience from the perspective of a stupid person, but I imagine that it would present its own problems.

I started designing Mappa Mundi,  a boardgame set during the European Age of Discovery in the 15th century, for several reasons:

1) There was a gap in the market for story-led, complex strategy games with a strong roleplaying element, which also provide a rich bedrock of mechanics and world-building to encourage divergence and replay;

2) It was a game that, if I described it to myself whilst pacing around my living room (an activity that quadruples as mopping, hoovering and exercise), I very much wanted to play;

3) There was a story that I wanted to tell, and I felt that it would be told best in this format;

4) By telling this story, I wished to teach people (secretly) about something for which they had cultural awareness, but perhaps less actual knowledge.

The story of the European explorers, almost all of them retrospectively diagnosable with severe personality disorders, and their frankly absurd drive to cross the sea in the rotting dandruff of the waves, haunted by mutiny, disease, loss, bankruptcy, loneliness, scurvy, religious extremism, not to mention the entirely fictional bestiaries of the day, is a very long and complex one. It involves so many different subjects that I scarcely knew where to start in terms of a traditional script or novel. What would emerge from such a process would be a runtish chimaera of influences, a book about the thickness of one American sandwich or three British sandwiches, and a horrid mess.

A game, whether board or otherwise, provides an excellent way to solve this very basic problem. Games thrive at the thinner end of the wedge. They offer ways to develop relatively few mechanics and allow the squelchy old human bonce to extrapolate out a theoretically endless number of permutations. This means that the story can be told again and again, each time slightly differently. However, though the world stays the same throughout each game – the world here being the “possibility space” of every conceivable game – the narrative, the specific game played, changes every time. As long as the gameplay itself is compelling, a player can experience as many narratives as they like. This is unfortunately less possible in a traditional narrative, such as a novel or a film, where the gameplay is, while slightly more involved than many game designers would have you believe, still restrictively linear.

I even considered turning Mappa Mundi into a stageplay for a while, but the last thing the London stage needs is more men in tights sighing or cackling.

I decided, then, that Mappa Mundi would work as a game. However, unlike other games, such as chess or chequers or, now I come to think of it, any that have endured, I would be guiding the narrative a little more than usual. Chess is eternally popular, not just because of its mechanics, but because the pieces, their movement, and their opposition, are so atavistic that they may substitute themselves for anything weighing on the player’s mind. Outside the obvious realms of war and conflict, chess may be a contest between lovers, a map of a realm, or political machinations between sons of some decaying fiefdom.

My effort is a little more focussed than that. It is set in the 15th century in Europe. It involves sailing ships, courting politicians and staking claim to new land, very explicitly. Metaphors have their place when playing Mappa Mundi, but nowhere near as broadly as its elemental brothers. Right away, we have an immediate problem; there is a channel already cut for the story. Hire a politician, sail across the world, gather gold, come back. There’s not much of a choice, on the face of it, past the first game. Not much room for imagination, or the unconscious pollination that players commit.

At this point, it’s probably best if I give you a quick overview of the game so far:

Players choose their characters (with differing attributes and wealths) from a limited pool, and choose a positive and negative personality attribute (randomly) along with it. They then enter into a bidding war, partially randomized with a dice, to secure the best patron in Europe, each of whom has differing motives and available funds. Each patron will give them more money for ships and equipment, in return for completing missions. These missions are secret from the other players.

After this the main game begins. Players strike out from the printed map of Europe onto blank sheets of paper, forming an unmarked map of the world. As their fleet progresses, they draw cards (containing both boons and obstacles) from the Deck of Oceans. If they receive a “Landfall” card, they start drawing from the Deck of Shores, sketching out sections of coastline on the paper according to the instructions on the card. They will find civilizations and other wonders, drawn from, appropriately the Deck of Wonders. Through trade, sabotage, conquest, subterfuge and exploration, as well as completing their patron’s missions, a player may win the game.

You see, therefore, that it is a complex game. This is unavoidable, as the mechanics needed to be broad and varied enough to provide variation within the sandbox. The setting defines many of the mechanics (the travel by sea, trade, the patrons etc.), but the player’s behaviour is an entirely unknown quality, at least until playtest. I knew from the outset that I needed to create mechanics that were both novel and at the thin end of that wedge I mentioned.

These are the mechanics of which, amongst the over-complicated mess that is the game after several sessions of brainstorming, I am still proud:

  • Apart from the small, printed map of Europe, the game map is generated by the players, on blank pages that they attach to the original board . This uses a random mechanic (which I explained above) to ensure that the landscape, and therefore the tactical possibilities, will always be different in every game. This serves an anthropological as well as ludographical purpose; it correctly symbolizes the lack of navigational knowledge that these explorers had, as well as generating unique mementos from every game; a literal “New World”, created by luck, and the player’s choices.
  • The deck system is still a good one, and I have whittled it down to the three main ones. Cards, as well as being instantly recognizable as a symbol of uncertainty and gamble, allow me to compartmentalize the learning of mechanics; after the players have learnt the basic rules (many of which are simply “draw a card from the appropriate deck”), they then learn more only when a card calls for it, and even then in small, digestible boli. This substitutes a much more complex basic rules system. Simply put, having many of the game rules on randomly-drawn cards staggers the rate at which a player needs to learn them. A card is also the best random mechanic for telling a specific story; I can put flavour text, specific encounters, and interesting narrative on each one, and at no point does the player feel that they are having the story told for them; they have chosen to initiate the card mechanic, and so the richness of the responses enhance, instead of diminish, their sense of agency.
  • The roleplaying element is really important to me. As a player and Dungeon Master of D&D, I feel sure that players enjoy associating with a strong personality, good or bad. A feature of Mappa Mundi is that all of the characters have something wrong with them, as do the patrons; indeed, they could be characters in their own right. These faults are randomly chosen each game, which does add another deck of cards to the game, but ensures that each character is different every time one plays.

I think that it all comes down to a wish to have as many variables as possible. When someone recounts a game of Mappa Mundi, there will be quite a few [either/or] situations which their play will resolve. For example:

“Oh billy-ho, what a great game! I played as the French Monk Jacques du Gris! I had the Confidence card, but also the Moor Hater card, which meant that I wasted some time kicking about North Africa. I missed my first patron, King Joao, who had more gold than Burgher Avalao, but he wanted me to complete more missions, so I was lucky to get the Burgher, really. I had to find the Fountain of Youth, and spy on the player who had Al-Andalus, the Moorish philosopher, as his patron. And don’t get me started on what I spent my  cruzados on…

Every coloured phrase indicates a variable, and there are many more generated by the decks in the main part of the game. These points of change string together to form something truly emergent. I am still pretty proud of that.

However, I do need to work on paring down the number of decks. I think there are just too many, and it shows inelegance on the part of the design. I am certainly a “kitchen-sink” writer, and I need to figure out how to cut any flab that may be forming. Is it a case of cutting some of those variables for simplicity, or amalgamating them into a smaller total number? With the Ocean Deck, Shore Deck, Wonder Deck, Arrogance and Disaster Decks and Mission Deck, things are getting complicated very quickly. However, as mentioned above, many of these cards lie dormant for most of the game, and a player may only ever draw a fraction of them. I’m still not sure. I’m also getting writer’s block from the sheer number of ships, special cards, wonders, pieces of shoreline, and oceanic ephemera that I have to get down.

I have a lot of other work on at the moment, but I want to have a second draft (hopefully playable) together soon. I will also be Kickstarting (or the UK equivalent, if it has not made it over here yet) this project, with all sorts of incentives and stretch goals and more work for myself.

I am looking for a graphic artist/designer to help me with the art for this project, and am willing to split profits pretty generously. I have little talent for it myself, but I think this could benefit from really sumptuous design, a real evocation of the period. Please email me if you think that you would fit the bill.