Category Archives: Variations

Last Thanksgiving

A few months back I made available a small game titled Last Thanksgiving. It was a personal project, and proof of concept, but it also stuck with me. I’ve been sort of stalled on my latest design project. Nothing was coming together in the way I wanted it to. What I’ve come to realize is that, in designing a bare-bones game, Last Thanksgiving, what I was actually doing was subconsciously working past my designer’s block. You see, I’m a theme first type of guy. Hero’s Banner didn’t come into focus until I had a theme. Same with Mars Colony and 39 Dark. Every single time I come up with an interesting mechanic or provocative setting first, I start designing — but end up designing myself into a corner because the game has no soul. It’s not until I get a strong handle on what I want to say with a game that I can really make progress. For my latest project, that theme is becoming clear, and that theme is memory.

Specifically, something that has been on my mind of late is the notion of memory loss. (And now we’re getting personal, watch out!) My grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before passing away. I watched my two grandmothers suffer from memory loss in their old age as well. At the same time, as I age, the notion of reliving past events through memory is becoming more relevant while at the same time more fraught. Not all the memories are good ones, and, good or bad, I wonder if I can really trust those memories as “accurate.” This is tied up with my study of memoirs (see especially Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home), and the way an author fixes a memory in time by writing it down in a particular way as a story. Hell, I’m sure even Roy Batty’s last words in Bladerunner are serving as inspiration.


My point is that all these thoughts about the value and peril of memory are rattling around in my brain, and I’m looking for a way to say something about it all. Enter my latest project. Both Last Thanksgiving (now revised) and the brand new extension, Lost Thanksgiving, tackle the theme of memory in a hyper-focused, two-player format. The players are presented with a limited situation that seems simple at first, but hopefully expands into something larger. This isn’t a “big” game, but it is a personal game (both for me and for anyone who plays it). The main character could be an elderly grandparent in a contemporary drama or a young protagonist in a sci-fi/horror story. The choice is yours, but the theme remains: how does memory betray us, and what power does memory have over us?

The first and base game, Last Thanksgiving, is simple in its presentation, but leaves room to take the story in whatever direction you please. The extension, by comparison, is optional, but highly recommended. It ups the ante and the elements of horror such that memories become corrupted and even malevolent.

I hope you enjoy them, and I’d love to hear your feedback. Neither is a “finished” game in the sense that I’m ready to put out a commercial production, but they are complete and fun to play. I have ideas for at least two additional extensions, and if they work out, this whole thing could see a professional production in a year or two, complete with artwork, examples, etc.

Download Last Thanksgiving (the base game).

Download Lost Thanksgiving (the first extension).

Mars Colony in the Classroom

I continue to be amazed (in a good way) by the number of people who try to adapt Mars Colony for a multi-player setting. If you’ve browsed some of my previous entries here, you’ll know that I have already posted one suggestion from a fan. However, previous attempts were still assuming a relatively low player count. When I received a message from Remko about wanting to scale the game up, way up, to a classroom setting, I was intrigued. He had already come up with a few ideas of his own. We discussed a few potential hiccups that I had run into with previous games, and he eventually settled on the following:

  1. I’m going to assign two Saviors and the rest are Martians. I myself will play the role of the Earth council to keep the pressure on.
  2. Each player will belong to one of the political parties. Furthermore, each one of the Saviors has a Personal relationship with one of the players.
  3. Each player has an appeal, which he or she can use to re-roll one die after it has been cast. However, that person should be able to explain that narratively.

You can read his full account on his website, but suffice to say it was an interesting experience for him and for his students. Because so many of them were new to roleplaying, there were a few interesting oddities that popped up that I would not have anticipated. This is my experience showing, and a reminder of what it’s like to put yourself in the shoes of a new player. As Remko put it:

In the beginning, players needed to get accustomed to the whole system. On one hand, there was some confusion about whether they were telling facts or fiction, since the students were feeling quite in character in that sense. Questions like “Am I allowed to talk about that in my role?” and “That what I am saying, is that the truth or is it a lie?” were confusing in the beginning, but as the game continued and I explained that it should be clear from the context whether it was fact or fiction, the game went quite smoothly.

And also this:

One thing I did like about this version was the seemingly frustrating effect for some players that their ideas weren’t valid anymore due to the story elements introduced by the other players. Part of creating a story together is the fact that not all of your ideas will be part of the story.

Thanks to Remko for his report and for his willingness to hack the basic Mars Colony system to fit such a different setting!

Multi-Player Mars Colony

I received an exciting email from Mars Colony fan, Anthony Pendleton. He’s devised a way to play the game with more than two. Here’s an excerpt from his email:

I ran it as three savior players (them) and one governor (me). The concept was that the govt back home was hedging their bets, hiring a consultant from each major political party, and the players didn’t find that out until they arrived.

We started with three Colony issues out the gate — Materials Shortage, Social Unrest and Terrorism — that all saviors could attempt to address. If one player managed to “resolve” an issue, I ruled that other players could still attempt to resolve them “from another angle” and not be locked out if progress had already been made. This made for a very interesting narrative to develop, as players would highlight a single problem in multiple lights, providing greater depth to the Colony’s issues.

If an issue was resolved, a new one would appear (as per the normal rules), but if an already resolved issue was then resolved again by another player, a new issue would not trigger. This didn’t happen in our game though, as players tended to focus on different issues.

As “win” conditions for the end, I decided that the player with the most fully resolved issues would “win,” with ties going to partial resolves and then by health points. At the end, one of the players suggested that the “winning” player be allowed to narrate their ending last, which was an awesome idea. The third place player narrated first, then the second, then the “winner,” and finally me as the governor to narrate the Colony’s outcome. No one was really a winner in the end as the Colony had slid extremely far into squalor and sickness, although the “winning” player did manage to pin it all on another player.

During play, we removed the Personal Scene option, sticking with Issue Scenes only (would stretch the game out too far otherwise) which flowed very well. I’d throw out a complication scene (don’t have the book in front of me right now, pry messing up the terms, sorry) as the governor, then each savior player would take turns to address an issue and roll/push their luck.

Players quickly began not only using the Colony npc’s, but also each other to “cross the aisle and work together” — no actual change to game play, just color. As things went well (or terribly wrong), players would weave details from others’ narration into their own, building out the setting and story much more than is normally done in a two player game.

One of the things that fascinates me about two-player roleplaying is the different dynamic generated during play. If you are used to multi-player games only, it’s easy to forget just how much content and theme is generated as a result of the interaction between the different players at the table. When you reduce the player count to just two, there is a lot more pressure on each person to contribute meaningfully and consistently. It can be easy for a game to fall flat if one or both players run into a creative wall.

In many two-player games that I’ve played, this problem is often solved by providing more of two things: structure and raw creative material. The structure provides the players with a framework that they can use to push the game along even when their creativity is lower than it perhaps should be. The idea is that the framework can serve as an inspiration when no other ideas are striking. Similarly, by providing raw creative material like setting material in S/Lay w/Me, clues in Sweet Agatha, or political positioning in Mars Colony, the players will again have something to build off of. The extra structure and material in these games can help make up for what would otherwise be provided by the other players at the table in a multi-player game.

On this note, when Anthony told me he had lopped off the Personal Scenes from Mars Colony, I freaked. However, his follow-up explanation made sense:

One thing I didn’t expect, however, was that the personal character exposition that normally comes out during Personal Scenes came out very naturally as players interacted with each other not only during their actions but also when launching off of others’ actions as well (whether successes or failures). Surprised me and flowed very well — something that was possible with multiple savior players but not with just one on their own.

Given that there were more people to generate ideas at the table, and that players were able to cross their characters into the same scene (or even react to what had happened in a previous scene), Anthony’s explanation makes sense. It also reinforces my suspicions that the two-player vs. multi-player roleplaying experience is very different and takes a different design attitude.

In any case, I thought you might enjoy know that multi-player Mars Colony is possible. If anyone else has tried the game with more than two, I’d love to hear about it!

Deception Cards

I received a wonderful email from a Mars Colony customer in Italy by the name of Tazio. He had given the game a try with great success. However, his concern was that there was no way to keep track of the lies that Kelly was telling throughout the story. As he put it, there was no sense that Kelly was “actually creating a new skeleton in his closet, which could be discovered and turned up.” To fix this problem, Tazio created a simple solution. Every time Kelly chose the route of deception, the players would take a new index card and record whatever lie, or “skeleton,” Kelly had created in the scene. As Tazio put it:

This had the side effect of creating truly edgy situations, as the skeletons became de facto flags just like the fear cards.

I thought the idea was a good one, and wanted to share it with all of you. I especially like how, if a Scandal occurs later on in the game, these Deception Cards would provide a reminder of exactly the sort of things that Kelly had done in the past to create such a furor. They might also help to inspire the Governor, for example, to create certain related types of opposition in future scenes.