Medieval farming – A little bit of bread and no cheese
This is an onside report by Nick Luft of his game about medieval farming, A little bit of bread and no cheese, that he attempted to run at the CLWG meeting in June 2015.
A failed game
I regard this game as a failed game. We didn’t play the first round. I tried to explain the game so we could get the first turn done. But the players were struggling to understand the system so we moved into the discussion phase.
Even though I deem it a failure I learnt a lot. Though that still does not take away the sting of dismay I feel for putting on such a bad game after all these years of game designs. How could I do that? I should have known better.
First the excuses; then the analysis and at the very end the narrative.
Excuses for failure
I did think about the decisions the players should take and I did think about the game challenges I wanted for the players. My error was to keep a too complex model of the medieval farming that was required to carry the game. Cart before horse. Model before design.
And another thing. I still think that if I had put more effort into producing decent player aids and gaming pieces the game would have been playable. Well, nearer to playable, rather like one of Montgomery’s ninety percent successful victories.
OK. Enough of the whining excuses.
Analysis of failure
The inspiration for this game came many years ago during James Kemp’s “Afghan Farmers” game. I wanted to use his model of a failing farming community that was forced to solve its endemic problems through growing and harvesting opium poppies. I wanted to do this in a medieval setting. I wanted a game that would provide a “normal” farming year and then follow it with a catastrophe or a problem – for example a raiding war band stealing and destroying most of the food and crops, or a new tax system being imposed.
I started by collecting data on medieval farming, village history and diet. I had a design that consisted of an order of play, a list of player roles, a list of player decisions (the so what test) and a spreadsheet with lots of data in. I put it to one side for about two years – I went travelling.
I came back to this game after playing a board game called Caverna in April this year. This is one of the many developmental board games. There are other similar games like Agricola, Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan etc. What inspired me – in a I can do that better, sort of way – was that these games are not good models of the real world and start with few resources and develop into a completely developed system by the end of the game. And they are too complicated! (Ah!)
So I dug out my game design.
Also I was thinking about my teacher training and perhaps how I could set a programming project to make a game using my model of the medieval farming system. Perhaps combine it with a history class.
Now that I write this I see the problem. Too many design aims, too long between designs, too much detail; a heady cocktail for failure.
Perhaps worth repeating the game design mantra – selection and maintenance of the game aim is the most important thing. And to come back to this throughout the design process and to ask yourself how does the current prototype meet the iterated aims.
Narrative of failure
So what was the game about.
Each player was given a role, and a household with appropriate resources. So we had the Bailiff representing His Lord, a priest, a wealthy yeoman farmer, and some poorer folk, the cottars. The resources a player had was their family – workers – an allocation of land to till, some forage in their byre and some animals in their toft.
There were rules about how planting, harrowing, ploughing, and harvesting, how many workers were required for each task and the break down of who could do what. For example only men could plough. There were rules about what the basic diet should consist of, and the risks of illness and death if enough food was not eaten. And there were rules about the weather.
The problem was there was just too much of it. I had produced a model of the system, with some interaction from the players, but too much detail to engage their interest and probably decisions that would become automatic or custom based. The real interest from the players point of view was in the interaction of their players and their economic and social interests.
The village game. The players take on a role in the village at some crisis point and attempt to resolve the issue at hand. I would be tempted to let them settle into their roles first. Perhaps a couple of turns going through a very very simple farming year, so that the players are settled in role, and perhaps shocked when something dreadful goes wrong.
There is something I find fascinating about the rituals and processes and personalities and workings of medieval village life. For this is where nearly every medieval person lived. The majority of the population lived, worked, and died in a country village.
Hopefully I will return to this game, chastened and better for it.
The title for this game was inspired by the plaintive song of the Yellowhammer. In English folklore the song of the Yellowhammer is said to say “A little bit of bread and no cheese“. I have always understood that it is a sad lament that typifies the hungry country folk.
And as Milmud is now a blog I can embed a link here to the song of the Yellowhammer. See if you can hear the words in its song.