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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Collaborative Strategic Underground Railroad... Games

As some of you may know, Aaron Walker and I have been working for almost a year on a historical collaborative strategy boardgame about the Underground Railroad.

It's a side project, so we haven't been going very fast. We're at the playtesting stage, though, with a playtestable POD version produced by TheGameCrafter.com.

At the beginning of July, the kids & Esther & I were in California for the lovely wedding of David Moles and Meredith Trauner. There were many parties in the run-up to the wedding; one of them was a D&D 3.5 geek bachelor party, in which I was a taciturn, cynical, mildly suicidal ascetic mystic -- who had once been a high-level cleric in good standing of one of the bureaucratically state-sanctioned religions of Pagan Demi-Steampunk Wherever -- who spent most of the campaign grumpily enduring the noble, earnest and steadfast advances of Jackie Monkewicz's somewhat gothy paladin, who had had the misfortune to have been assigned me as a mentor due to a clerical error. We were all waiting for a train out of town, there were giants and ghosts, a firm, harried and resolute magical-train-disaster inspector played by Jed Hartman, Heather Shaw as some kind of elven-ish or dryadic witchy mentor trying to keep an unruly bunch of randy young witches in line, Rachel whose last name I forget as a huffy and prickly too-smart faculty-politics-obsessed academic research wizard, Susan Groppi with a mysterious briefcase, Matt Withers as a scruffy trainspotting ranger who snuck into the dungeon while we were fighting skeletons, sat down, and claimed to have appeared out of nowhere.... but I digress.

Anyway, sometime during the hours of fiddling-with-character sheets preceding this all-too-short extravaganza of geekitude, I set up the board for the Underground Railroad game, and Heather snapped (and tweeted) this picture.

Looks good, doesn't it?

While we were fiddling along at our side-projecty pace, though, we got scooped by this game, which at first glance has a startlingly similar premise (and even a few similar mechanics -- Slave Catchers as randomly-moving menaces, for instance).

On reflection, of course, it's just steam engine time at work. If you've played Pandemic and read Fergus Bordewich's terrific Bound for Canaan, replacing CDC doctors fighting disease with the Abolitionist underground fighting slavery is an obviously natural fit.

Freedom looks good; I supported the Kickstarter as soon as I heard about it, and I'm looking forward to playing the game. It may even scratch the itch that I was designing our U.G.R.R. game to scratch. A good deal of things are different, of course -- we have a Catan-style generative board, role cards where you get to be a specific abolitionist...

I have to admit, my first reaction was "oh well, there goes that then" -- at least in terms of any thought of taking our U.G.R.R. beyond an entertaining prototype to fool around with. I was fascinated, and charmed, and mildly befuddled, to discover that my kids immediately insisted that I could not give up, and should pour all my energies into finishing U.G.R.R. and winning the battle for collaborative-strategic-underground-railroad-boardgame market share. This strikes me as going a bit far. But maybe there's room for two. I don't know, what do you think?

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