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The Goodly Mist
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Mappa Mundi Dissected 3

November 20, 2012

A ship is a dreadful, dreadful reaction to the problem of ocean.

I say this with all the fullness of respect for beautiful shipwrighting, ingenious seamanship, and my own memories of lying in the strung netting of a catamaran with my brother, treading lightly over the waves of the Caribbean sea. I love ships. I love them because they are an imperfect solution to the fact that our universe, in its codes of elements and interactions, decided that carbon-based life needed a hideously dangerous compound very close by, just in order to process energy.

The ship is a depiction of mankind as a child.

The image above shows a variety of caravels (though not galleons, as these were not built until the 16th century) and carracks typically used in the 14th and 15th centuries, around the time that Mappa Mundi is set. They were light beasts, in general, designed for the lazy buzzing that accompanied European ocean travel. Though there was still danger akeel in the form of pirates and submerged sandbacks, the sight of land on one side mitigated that terrifying expanse of water on the other.

But, as Andre Gidé said, “one does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

These ships were woefully unprepared for the open ocean. Many chose to swing on Iceland’s hook and up to Greenland, tripping over ice floes and sticking fast. Those that did take a more direct route across the Atlantic regularly had half their fleet sunk, and thought it fortunate it were not more.

Mappa Mundi is what Richard Garfield calls an ‘orthogame’; one which ranks players by their ability and luck into clear ‘winners’ and ‘runners-up.’ Most of what we would consider ‘games’ or ‘sport’ function in this way. A winner is a conclusion to a game that persists in record, and serves a shorthand to the play of it. But a winner on its own is nothing; that winner has to have fought with skill or merely determination to reach that state. And the game, a good one, will challenge them every step of the way, especially if the other players have bad luck or little ability. The game itself becomes an opponent.

I have spoken about randomness in the context of games before, but usually with more than a little trepidation; it is hard to balance a game, and strategise for its execution, where many of the mechanics rely on blind luck. I am still trying to add some elegance to these other systems in Mappa Mundi, but one in which I think randomness works well, both mechanically and narratively, is the system by which these leaking, disease-heaving bowls of human soup traverse the wide ocean.

In both the game and history, the ocean is a process, not an end-state; no sailor wished to grow wiry and white in the middle of the Atlantic. The ocean was an inconvenience that held everything by chance; the weather, the tides, treasures, dangers, and more and more and more, all dipped into this vast expanse that would cost many months to cross on foot. For all its weaknesses, the sailing ship was fast, faster than anything else at the time, and its size made it more than fast, but self-sustaining for a time, packed full of everything needed to keep men alive for their ultimate goal; the New World.

In Mappa Mundi a ship in the waters surrounding Europe may move as it likes, north, south, into the Mediterranean, docking and setting out again as if it had legs and it was on a dry path known to all. But as soon as it creeps onto the white expanse of the A3 sheets, as yet uncharted, as yet unexperienced, they are at the mercy of the ruler and the Wind Dice, poor facsimiles of a navigator’s tools, included in the rules so that players may have some physical interaction that resembles those of the characters which they are playing. I’m not one for abstraction.

The distance in days a ship can travel (a number of inches on the board) is determined by the number of days of supplies that it carries. This is consistent across a player’s fleet, to avoid confusion and micromanagement of individual ships. I wanted player’s to be able to split their fleets at a moment’s notice, to give them flexibility, while keeping strategic resource management centralized, in the manner of any well-made campaign game. If they run out of supplies out of sight of land, they lose a ship and are returned to port; this seemingly light punishment is to stop something which may occur frequently (for some) prematurely ending a player’s game.

A player chooses a direction they wish to travel in, and throws themselves into the waves. They cannot change direction mid-way; using sails and the wind, our explorer’s ships would not have had that luxury. They then roll the Wind Dice, a specialised six-sided dice seen above. If they roll one of the arrows, they instead travel in that direction, at the mercy of the squall. If they hit the whirlpool, they may travel in their chosen direction, favoured by the zephyrs.

To make such a basic mechanic random is fairly risky; gameplay could devolve into merely tacking around the board like birds in a gale. However, I believe that, to properly replicate the experience of being at sea at the time, the random element is essential. To mitigate this randomness, there are several items, cards, and character traits which can add a little more certainty to one’s direction. There is a key symbolic value to the Wind Dice, also. Originally, I included a normal dice for other mechanics. This, however, made little sense; it complicated the ruleset, creating a pair of objects with very different functions but similar appearances, and just reeked of awkwardness. By making every dice roll playable on the Wind Dice, I not only made my system more elegant and easy to understand, but symbolised the nature of chance in the late Middle Ages. For sailors and explorers, aspects of their lives relied more on the vagaries of nature, and the wind, than those of landbound men. The will of God had little to do with cyclones and riptides. And so, instead of remaining safe in their ports, these men and women went out and fed on that chance, allowed it to take them to places where the rewards were greater than all the mines and fields of Europe could offer.

I’m nestled in a little quotation silo, so here’s one more, by William Shedd; “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”

However, with just the wind and the white paper for company, these parts of the game would be very boring. Considering how random the Landfall mechanic is, a player may spend several turns or more at sea. The Deck of Oceans provides something for that player to focus on, to rely on for reward and fear for punishment. At the end of every section of movement, no matter how long or short, the player draws an Ocean Card, and plays it immediately. It could be a storm that rips one of their ships in two, a tide that pulls them to their goal, a sinking ship filled with treasure, an island, an omen, or leviathan of the waves. I have tried to match positive and negative fairly equally, but this is always hard when water is so dangerous, and ships so failing.

This weekend, I will be conducting the first playtest of Mappa Mundi ever! I’ll post some pictures and some feedback, but I am woefully underprepared. After that, I’ll make some big changes, write some more cards, playtest it again, refine it again, and then open it up to public playtesting. The website should be up by then, but for now I have added a new section to my website’s Project section, for games exclusively.

I’m off to play some music in Kentish Town now.


This post is for my good friend and fellow writer Rob Gordon, who told me that he reads all of this nonsense! Thanks Rob!