Introducing: The Wizard’s Spellbook

I love board games, right, and I love tabletop RPGs and all the rest of it, but I hate rules. Or, rather, I hate the awkward little social dynamics attached to learning the rules. There’s this really specific problem where one person’s teaching a game to a group, and everybody’s trying to learn – and then the person teaching the game ends up winning, because they understand all the more nuanced strategies, so they can just clean house. It’s not enjoyable. Or you get ‘rules lawyers’, people who start really intricate arguments over very minor details, and the whole game gets hung up on their drama. Structurally, rules – or more specifically the process of learning and understanding the rules – can cause certain social problems that can interrupt the fun of a games night. So I decided to make a game where the rules aren’t known.

Here’s the pitch. You play a group of thieves robbing a wizard’s castle. You have wound your way to the highest tower, and found the wizard’s spellbook. As you pick it up, an alarm blares throughout the tower. You hear the floors below you grumble into life…

To win the game, you have to escape the wizard’s tower. You have to make it through a series of rooms, with each room hosting a challenge – some trap or monstrous creation belonging to the wizard. In order to resolve these challenges, you have to search the wizard’s spellbook. Each player has a copy of the spellbook. It’s – still a work in progress, but it’s likely to come out at about twenty A4 pages. When you enter a room, a timer starts. You’ll have one minute to find a solution before the trap or monster springs into life. You’re only allowed to read the spellbook during this time. You can’t read it between rounds, and all players have to shut their books before you’re able to cast your chosen spell. If you can’t find what you need in time – you’d better watch out! You might fall prey to the wizard’s castle.

You get the gist of it, right. It’s a game built around the act of learning how to play. It’s about panic-reading the rules, about searching for information and not getting distracted by that entry about bondage. It solves the knowledge problem of board games by putting the players on an equally ignorant footing. It’s a one-shot, obviously, but after you’ve played you can always set yourself up as game master for another group of friends, setting new traps and monsters and watching others struggle through the process.

As I said, I’m still in the writing process for this game. I’m probably about a quarter of the way there. Many entries are planned but not yet fleshed out; each entry needs to have a bunch of rambling wizard notes to obscure the actual solution, and that takes a bit of time. I really just wanted to talk today about some of the concepts involved in making a game like this. In a sense, this game is about how we organise and store information. It’s a game about (for example) the index. If you walk into a room with a rabbit, and you turn to the index to help you find a relevant rabbit-management technique, do you look under ‘R’ for ‘rabbit’, or ‘B’ for ‘bunny’? Or even ‘H’ for ‘hare’? In the age of information, it’s often easy to overlook the nature of our systems for navigating knowledge. If you ask Google, you get the answer. We don’t have to think much further than that. This game is really about organising knowledge poorly – illustrating the importance of knowledge navigation through its absolute absence. I’m wanting to include a bunch of weird annoying little structural things – just counter-intuitive index listings, or entries that refer you to other entries which refer you to other entries again. Things that are alternately funny and frustrating, things that highlight the tools we use for organising knowledge.

I think partly the question here is also – if our standard techniques for navigating knowledge start to fail, how do we adapt? It’s not just about the system that we’re given – it’s also about how we use and abuse that system to get where we need to go. A big part of the game is going to be bad puns. One of the entries will be about snails, for instance, and the way you deal with the snails is with a snail transport spell: Es-cargo. It’s obviously dumb and silly, and that’s reason enough to put it in – but it also kinda tugs at how we think about meaning. The connections between things in this game aren’t always determined by concrete, semantic sense – they’re often associative, connected by similar sounds or by parts of words pulled out of place and recontextualised. Our words are vehicles for meaning, and there’s something really pleasing about tugging out the internal resonances and echoes that aren’t necessarily part of the overt message. It just starts to rewire – even if only for the course of the game – how we think about language, how we think about the connections between words and how we bridge the concepts that they represent. In a small way, I hope that it encourages us to be more flexible in how we approach and interpret knowledge in our day to day lives.

I should get back to writing, anyway. I’ll let you know when it’s done.

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