Adventures in 8.5×11 at In Media Res

In Media Res is a Media Commons project dedicated to experimenting with collaborative, multi-modal forms of online scholarship. Each weekday, a different scholar curates a 30-second to 3-minute video clip/visual image slideshow accompanied by a 300-350-word impressionistic response – re-purposing an existing media object and providing context through commentary.

For the website’s #FantasyCartography week, I submitted Adventures in 8.5×11 – an article documenting the past decade of the One Page Dungeon Contest. The competition is something that I’ve been following for a long time – and have even participated in on occasion – and this was a great opportunity for me to sift through hundreds of past entries. I’ve included a short excerpt of my piece below:

Amateur pen-and-paper game design is certainly not a new phenomenon. Since Gary Gygax and David Arneson began their Blackmoor adventure in 1972 – fusing Chainmail medieval wargaming with Gygax’s established Fantasy Supplement – generations of gamers have meticulously crafted their own sprawling dungeons and fantastical campaign settings.

You can check out the entire #FantasyCartography week offering on the In Media Res website.

Text Adventure Twitter Bot

On somewhat of a lark, I decided to convert my Twitter account into a fantasy text adventure bot. I haven’t been the heaviest of user of the platform lately – at least not for crafting original tweets – so I thought I’d flex my meager programming and writing skills to bring what is essentially randomized Zork to social media.

Utilizing Zach Whalen’s excellent guide, I used a column-by-column randomizer to craft tweets that follow the standard text adventure format. My (now deleted) test tweet is indicative of the formula: “You enter an extravagant ballroom. A tiny sahuagin is sitting quietly on an oaken chair. An inconspicuous wand lies on the ground in front of you. Obvious exits are WEST and SOUTHWEST.”

The beauty of Whalen’s system is that you can edit your corpus easily through a Google Docs spreadsheet. New content can be added on the fly, without having to restart the bot or bring it down for maintenance. I’ll likely be fixing typos and creating additional content throughout the month of December.

Risk Legacy: In Defense of a Disposable Board Game

Risk Legacy is a $50 board game that you’ll probably only play 15 times.

If I had tried to sell you on that concept twenty years ago you probably would have laughed in my face. Board games have long been vaunted for their replay value and durability. If you grew up in the burbs, it’s likely you knew someone with a venerable iteration of Clue or a well-worn Monopoly set from fifties. Passed across generations like family heirlooms, these games are often hidden away in closets until a rainy day rolls around, when they are counted on for hours of entertainment. They’re usually good for a couple of shouting matches fist-fights too!

However, this reliability comes with a cost: predictability.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon and you’re about half an hour into a game of Monopoly. After a few trips around the board, you’ve somehow managed to secure both Atlantic and Ventnor Avenue. Your brother, the insufferable jerk he is, has Marvin Gardens.

And the only way you’re going to get it is prying it out of his cold, dead hands.

You know the rules of the game too well. Allowing a player to get a complete set of properties is a death knell for everyone else at the table. So you wait, and you wait, and you wait… until someone hits a streak of bad luck and goes bankrupt. Or maybe, they get just desperate enough to make a deal. Then the rest of the dominoes fall and you embark upon a merry-go-round of crushing debt.

The original version of Risk, released way back 1959, often falls into a similar rut. The rules are about as simple as you can get: occupy land, attack your enemies, and try to take over the world. With such obvious objectives, you end up in the same obstructionist patterns as Monopoly – except with global politics rather that capitalist feuds. “We can’t let Matt take New Guinea and get the continent bonus!” or “Brooke almost has all of North America, stop her!” or “Watch out, Geoff has Irkutsk!”

Well, maybe not Irkutsk. Nobody likes Irkutsk.

To make matters worse, death is permanent and games can go on for (literally) days. Although reaching the end of a campaign can be satisfying, it is rarely worth the hours of outrage that accompany play sessions.

Risk Legacy manages to address most of these problems by making itself disposable. Like a rocketship casting off portions of its hull to hasten its ascent, Risk Legacy hurls new content at its players to propel the game forward. You can never truly settle into a rut because you never fully get a grasp on what is going on. As soon as you think you have everything figured out, a figurative (or literal) bomb goes off and you have to scramble to pick up the pieces.

I don’t want to get too deep into spoilers, but one of the reasons that Risk Legacy succeeds is because it manages to keep the experience novel through 15 accelerated game sessions. Full global domination is not required – players can complete missions, take over bases, or a do a little bit of both to win a game. The multiple win conditions are complicated by missiles, factions, and mission/event cards: some of which are one-time-only affairs and are thrown away once they are completed. This may seem odd – even sacrilegious – to some, but there is something strangely liberating about vandalizing board game pieces.

The marquee feature of the game, however, is the fact that the board does not fully reset after every match. Cities can be built to increase the value of countries. Scars can be placed to provide boons or weaknesses to specific territories. And cataclysmic events can be unlocked by meeting certain gameplay conditions. The unlockable content is really what makes the game shine: it is entertaining, surprisingly in-depth, and forces you to reconsider your entire strategy for the game.

There are some downsides to this approach, however. The game’s “race to the most wins” mechanic means that by the twelfth or thirteenth match, some people are likely just along for the ride. Additionally, the constant parade of new rules makes game challenging for younger players (or simply less seasoned gamers). In a way, Risk Legacy is a toybox for meta-gamers. You have to think fast and find the best way to exploit a parade of new rules and mechanics.

But is $50 too much for a board game with an expiry date?

I could make a very compelling argument for the dollars-per-hour entertainment value of the game. I could also draw parallels to linear video games, Dungeons and Dragons modules, and even Escape Room experiences: all of which lose a portion of their charm after the first playthrough.

However, what Risk Legacy really feels like is a giant puzzle that you solve with your friends. Although mortal enemies in-game, you end up banding together to decipher emerging mechanics while unlocking new content. When the board is finally complete – and a victor declared – you don’t really feel like you’ve won or lost. Instead, you are greeted with a moment of clarity: like you’ve put the final piece in a giant jigsaw puzzle. It’s no wonder that so many people have chosen to frame the finished product.

Maybe $50 is a bit much for something that may just end up being a piece of wall art, but I don’t recall ever playing a game of Monopoly or Clue that I wanted to frame afterwards. Heck, half the time those game boards ended up on the floor anyways.