Tales of the Common Folk provides me with endless delight as it comes together. Not only is it sliding neatly into a good size as development trims out the worst of the excess, but it hits its target so very solidly.
I got a large part of the idea initially from the gypsy tarot deck–better known as “a deck of cards” in most places. While it has well-documented innocent origins and plenty of use for mere entertainment, there remains a dubious character quality to cards and card players. The four suits relate to four different areas of fortune: Spades or work and labor, Diamonds or finances and glory, Clubs or violence and conflict, and last but not least Hearts or romance and relationships.
Fortune Telling is a common con with many charlatans. I would encourage any believers or readers who are on the fence to check out this book which deconstructs many common con artist tricks with stage magic to show how easily taken-in an uninitiated audience member can be. Like Astrology and the horoscope which runs in the local paper, the interpretations of the numbered suits and face cards are generic and interpreted via cold reading or another method of information gathering. It is an expensive and time consuming way of flipping a coin, really, to seek advice from a deck of cards as to what to do next in life.
Still, it is the reflection of the power of stories and our spirits’ ability to fill in gaps that strikes me more than any thought of anger or disdain for those who are involved with charlatanry. Why not tap into the natural human drives toward symbolic reality, openhandedness, and freedom to teach and guide the young and entertain ourselves?
Just like the tarot decks with their Major Arcana, Tales has a number of interpretable characters in the character deck to be used for inspiration or expiry of things in our chests and close to our hearts, able to unite us and bring us closer together as well as sharpening skills when approached with the same exciting causal stride that has always followed a deck of cards. We’re getting the second wave of art coming in now, piece by piece, and it is looking good. It is unusual to want demure cards, but in this case the engine is designed to get you started and then get out of the way as soon as you’re rolling.
Once we finish with it and find a method of production that suits our needs, I look forward to showing you some of my forays into this method of group storytelling.

Freedom of Visualization

I am nearly done with Scarcity, a game which will be free to download when you sign up for the newsletter. There is plenty to say about it, and I am rather proud of its simplicity and ambiguity of optimization—it is so dynamic, even I cannot figure out the best way to win! Of course, it is not designed to be competitive but rather an experience which can be used to visualize different scenarios.

I began crafting it as an homage to the Great Plains of North America, where the city I grew up in was named after one of the local area tribes and a massive statue stands at the juncture of two rivers to appeal to the heavens that the old ways and the new would flow together in peace and accordance with nature. The flow of the Native American way of life, with its conformity with their resources and deliberate purposefulness and lack of waste, contains so many examples of virtue and prudent habit for the young to learn from and has the benefit of being deeply evocative to the imagination as well. Perhaps we have spaghetti Westerns to thank for that, but it remains there just the same.

In the end, though, Scarcity improved the more I backed off on the deliberate themes from Kansas and Native American culture; why? Strong theme is important for attachment, and you need something to stimulate the brain’s sense of commitment, but why did making it generic make it better both for educational purposes and as a game?

With the lack of clear background, it is easier to discuss many different cultures and historical events and peoples. When I focused my design on one, I limited the capacity for teaching the virtues I was interested in making visible in favor of the details and minutia of a single specific time frame that is easily left in the past as a mystical and long-dusty age. I deeply appreciate that age, but I chose to blur it and leave it out so that the focus can be on the universal, the True, and the useful.

Ancient peoples did not have the luxuries of our infrastructure or our advanced communication practices and the ease and luxury we have in sharing our knowledge. They had to be focused more on what was at hand, taking advantage of windfalls and practicing against privation and disaster. Their constructions frequently could not stand a decade of time much less the centuries of modern architecture, and they needed to pour their energies into rejuvenatory tasks instead of the high-minded explorations we so often find ourselves caught up in. With that came a certain razor’s edge that cut at the unlucky and the pridefully vicious alike: Things like planning ahead and developing mastery and evaluating the capacities and propensities of neighboring tribes were necessary skills for surviving to see the next sunset, some days!

We live our lives full of safety nets, but sometimes when we look too closely for role models or heroes we can miss the powerful story of what our ancestors sacrificed and worked for: to leave for us this wonderful present, this legacy, this now in which we find ourselves. Whether it is the Founding Fathers of our nation or the ancient Stone or Tool Age peoples, it is in looking to the pasts’ virtues that can most help us understand how to live today by identifying what those virtues look like so we can see them in the modern context. While there is value in looking at a specific example, the larger the True thing you are hunting, the further back you must step to see its footprint.

I look forward to hearing you comment on the game when it is released, and to see how you put it to use for fun and profitable engagement with young and old hands alike. Soon!

Creative Collaboration

Storytelling has been an essential part of family and community life for as long as communities have been around. While being able to tell a good story is recognizable as a positive feature, most people would say it is not essential. But is it?

From its contribution to social engagements or its importance in helping you pin down a shady speaker, from its impact in presentations before business clients or in entertaining children, storytelling has impact across the board in massive though often unobserved ways. The creative engine Tales of the Common Folk is made to provide an educator help in teaching one aspect of storytelling: collaboration.

Creative collaboration, making things with others’ input, is actually opposed by many education systems which isolate creative energy in an attempt to concentrate it. When, say, musicians are gathered in a group or band in schools the atmosphere created is more of a top-down hierarchy that limits the discovery of the process by focusing on root disciplines—in other words, instead of the class focusing on their specialization such as band or drama, the class is carried out so as to treat the students like hard drives by downloading them their authority’s vision.

There are many reasons for this, but ultimately it leaves the next generation sorely lacking in this critical real-world skill. Every professional band and musician is influenced by collaboration with others, from producers and recording studios and marketing agents to fellow musicians and band members; every successful writer makes concessions to market forces and the people producing and buying the books, even Charles Dickens and Procopius. In business, marketing professionals and business partners dance to the beat of collaboration with their creative energies too, yet children are taught to obey and follow rather than being given feedback or criticism of their free exercise. They grow fragile, looking around for a prophet to show them a vision when we need each and every one of them free.

Tales of the Common Folk is a small card-based engine designed to let kids of almost any age mix with peers or adults to tell stories together. It incentivizes cooperation and is modeled after fair-play practices in many familiar games, so it is quick to pick up. The initial hesitation I have observed in playtesting indicates a lack of clear framework, which is the whole point: Give them some creative space. Few limits, maximum interaction, social engagement with a purpose. I am thrilled with how it has come together and how it is used by the groups I’ve shown it to. Right now, it’s having some art redone and I’m tinkering away on the rules insert back in the workshop. I’m very excited.

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Game Design with Goals in Mind

While I’m putting the finishing touches on a little game I’ll be offering for free (stay tuned for next month, or sign up for the newsletter so you get an email when it is available!) I thought it would be important to share what has been my biggest stumbling block in the game design process. No, it isn’t tight budgets, distractions, or lack of time.

I did not clarify the purposes of my refinement process

I often have made slick, fun little games and then have taken forever getting them around to useful, polished, salable form. It is a type of analysis paralysis, or perfectionism; a fear of failure and a fear of success all wrapped together. If you are unfocused or if you do not know the target audience, why your game is useful, or who you want to have it then you will run into doldrums after the idea has taken form and you have to choose between one form of good and another.

There are all manner of ways a perfectly good game can be shaped and sculpted depending on the goals: If you are marketing a game to a competitive crowd you will need to crunch the numbers and make sure there is a lot of ambiguity to the optimum play strategies and control randomness in the design. If you are trying to make a fun game for friends and family to gather around, you need to have impactful but quick and limited decision points and emphasize fun interaction during any downtime a player might face—like trading cards or resources with the active player. If you do not keep the goal in mind and have it finely-tuned, the proofing and adapting process will be discordant, touch-and-go.

With Scarcity, I found I have been reaching too far and trying to include too many different concepts. Less that is fun and meaningful is better than more that is flashy but useless; after all, is it not more fun to be engaged over which random and unknown caterpillar is going fastest down its track than to have to spend four hours building a caterpillar to race for a few seconds? The initial prototype played so well around a very basic economy, it was silly to think that I was improving it by making the economy complex by slowing it all down.

So stick to your focus, ask what you are targeting and moving towards, and don’t get lost in the bushes looking for the possible golden nugget when you have a whole field of grain ripe for the picking before you unless you need a golden bee-bee to launch at a particular Goliath. Scarcity will be free, and while it is competitive there is only a little asymmetry so the balance will even out wherever it is laid—and it will be just as fun regardless so long as I maintain the initial vision that underwrote the first prototype on its sheet of lined notebook paper.