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The Goodly Mist
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Mappa Mundi Dissected 2

November 12, 2012

Mappa Mundi is not a card game. It is most definitely a board game; look upon it (you can’t, yet), it has a board. The randomly-generated board (accomplished, I suppose, through the drawing of cards) is a mechanic I am proud of, as its incubator. However, the game does use cards – and a lot of them. At the moment, with intense whittling, I have managed to reduce the number of decks to four. If this sounds like a lot of cards for one game about sociopathic late-medievals, you would be entirely correct. But keep in mind that at one point I was considering seven separate decks of cards, each with an entirely different function. I quickly realised that I was descending into a faeces-on-the-walls cartopathy, and reined in my love of the mechanic.

I think one of my favourite things such a mechanic is its nature of compression. The best games in history have few rules and almost-infinite permutations; other games, have rules. Lots of rules. I have managed to keep Mappa Mundi somewhere between Dungeons and Dragons and 52-Card Pickup in terms of regulatory material, but at its heart is something to which brevity is anathema; established setting. Most people will come to this game with a preconception of what the Age of Discovery was like. The life of an explorer was often violent, and short, and full of floppy hats, but most of all it was varied. With half the globe to discover, there were far too many wondrous things out there to create succinct mechanics that cover every single one.

Cards! Cards are the solution (the poop dries hard). They are a modular system with little compare. Each card can contain a wealth of mechanical information, background and dispositions, but due to their inherently unknown nature, and the rate of slow revelation through drawing them, a player often only has to handle the information of a handful at a time. They are a universally-recognised veil that you draw across the gears, teasing only what is necessary for the player’s comprehension. Almost everyone on the globe knows what a card is, and what it represents. The drawing of a card is a preparation of the mind for new eventualities, and so the decks of cards in Mappa Mundi complement the relatively sparse ruleset by lurking at the edge of the board and puffing out their mantra:

You will have to draw us at some point. Don’t worry about us yet. Just remember that we are here.

There are plenty of games that use this philosophy; Magic: The Gathering takes a complex ruleset and distributes it across hundreds of cards, each relating to the core mechanics in wildly different ways. Carcassonne has a random terrain system technique similar to Mappa Mundi, and decision-making is drip-fed to the player a tile at a time. Even in Tarot, each card has a separate meaning and designation, that changes in comparison to other cards dealt. Only the cards drawn matter, and in most circumstances, are forgotten as soon as the mechanic is dealt with.

This gradual revelation and discard of mechanic has a drawback, though; it makes strategy very difficult. That last paragraph, despite its informative links and succinct, slender profile, contained a few factual voids. Plans lain by players in Magic: The Gathering are only possible because the player can see their own hand (of multiple cards) at all times, and so mechanics actually have to be compared and contrasted before play. In Mappa Mundi, the reason I pared down the number of decks was so that some things in each game were predictable, and could be used as anchors for a strategy. Otherwise, if everything was left to a literal luck of the draw, players would quickly become frustrated when their schemes had no weight.

For example, originally the traits of each character were drawn randomly from a deck at the start of each game, so that each character was different with every play. However, I found that this made it harder to give the characters any personality whatsoever, as well as not allowing players to focus on a particular style of play. An aggressive player will naturally gravitate towards the monk or the general, for example, while a player who prefers subterfuge the pirate or the spy. If their attributes are randomised, it does not matter which character they pick, and giving them any characteristics whatsoever becomes pointless. The power of choice is instantly negated, and players, obviously, do not wish to concede that the universe is a random collection of swamp gas and pain. By making the traits fixed, the characters now have very visible personalities, and the choosing of them becomes an act of strategy.

Cards do have their place in Mappa Mundi, however. If a player decides to make landfall on a foreign shore, they are at the mercy of the Deck of Wonders.

This deck is a lot of fun for me to devise. It gobbles chance as a fuel, a hodgepodge of blessings, beasts, peoples, artefacts, geography, psychology, and more, that represent pretty much anything that a European sailor in the 15th century believed lay for them out across the mare. Every card is different, and each has an action or effect that the player must invoke. A timely Wonder Card can destroy the best-laid plans, bolster an ailing defence, or take the player in an entirely new direction. They are an element of fate that a good player will use to their advantage, and in which an unlucky player will flounder.

For example, a player’s scouting party may encounter a hyaena that eats ten of them, or one’s character may catch a fever that makes their legs go black, or they may be called back to Europe to answer charges of witchcraft, or they may find the Fountain of Youth, or discover that they are the bastard son of the King Of Portugal, or impregnate a local, or merely lose at dice. The variety of pitfalls and ascensions is almost endless. Each card drawn changes their fortunes, for better or worse, and sometimes not in the most expected way. Some require revelation to the other players, others are kept secret for a time. I think that I have achieved the goal I set out to achieve with this mechanic; to invoke a sense of dread and excitement every time a player is required to draw a card, not just for the drawer, but for everyone around the table. They are drawn every time a player makes anchor on a foreign shore, and I hope that it will encourage the gamblers to ground themselves at every opportunity, just to see what they can find.

The other decks I have created fulfil similar functions; the Deck of Oceans is more dangerous perhaps, containing all the mutability and mythos of the ancient sea with its storms, gyres and leviathans; the Deck of Shores is slotted neatly into my favourite mechanic, the aforementioned random terrain generation. The fourth deck should not really be a deck at all; it is the Equipment Deck, with visible items that the players may purchase to help them on their voyages. I cannot work out how best to present this information at the moment, but cards are certainly not the way; as I said above, cards excel at gradual revelation, and when looking at available equipment, one needs to see every item at once for one’s decision to be informed.

I think there may be a neat dichotomy emerging here. Everything relating to foreign lands, in Mappa Mundi is mutable and wild, both cosmetically and mechanically, whereas everything relating to Europe is fixed, from the printed starting board to the characters and the patrons. This is an example, I believe, of embedding one’s story in one’s mechanics, and I am very pleased with it.