A Little Bit of Bread and No Cheese
This is a game that recreates the struggles of a medieval village to work together, to farm together, and to raise their families. It is a game about survival.
I wanted this game to achieve two things.
- The players had to have their own skin in the game. If they did not deploy their resources well their families might starve and get ill and possibly die. To enable this I designed a resource allocation game.
- I didn’t want a game just about optimal resource deployment. I also wanted a game that reflected the other issues of the medieval farmers. They lived and worked as a community. Players would need to cooperate, to dispute, to gossip, to bicker and to trade.
So how did the game actually go?
In a nutshell I made a big mistake with the numbers. The villagers consumed more food than they could produce and they were going to starve. During the game we fixed a few immediate problems so we were able to play four turns (seasons) and completed the year.
This made game unsatisfying for the players as they could not avoid starvation. My poor maths deprived them of agency in the game.
In my defence I had attempted to work from real numbers – there are sources giving how many bushels of grain each person requires to live, how much things cost and yield ratios for grain. What I failed to do was to play a few turns through myself and test that they were giving a reasonable result. My apologies to the players for this.
My main concern since the first game in 2015 was make the game playable. To that end I changed the main resource allocation system three times the week before the game. I kept on downsizing and simplifying the system to make it playable. I was worried that I was throwing too many little decisions, too many silly little things at the players. For example in the first iteration I had 4 crops and 5 animal types. By the third iteration I had 3 crops, and 2 animal types.
I succeeded in making the game playable. We quickly played four turns and after the first turn the players were quite happily going through the order of play without asking me for guidance.
The problem was I never gave myself time to retest the numbers in each new iteration of the system. And the numbers got screwed.
Highlights of the game
Mukul’s character getting married to Chrissy’s teenage daughter. This was my intention for his character. He was a wealthy bachelor. He needed a wife to help him run the farm and I had included several women of marriageable age in the other players families. Mukul got married for authentic medieval reasons; he needed a good woman to run his household.
John Rutherford struggled with his poor Cottar who was designed to be the player who needed to sell his labour. He did not farm enough land to feed his family. I also gave him a lot of animals to make cheese and meat with. John worked out that he could cart his cheese to the local town and sell it and then buy food.
John also creatively played a card that enabled John to fence his sheep (illegally). He chose to do this on Mukul’s land. This was entirely a trap for Mukul. The punishment would fall on Mukul. I think John did this just to annoy Mukul or get revenge for some slight or slander earlier in the game.
We had a disupute over a shared furlong. Two players had to share the farming burden for one strip and when the harvest came they had a dispute how to split the crop. A very common medieval problem. They appealed to the Bailiff who for a fee was prepared to make a judgment. They came to an out of court settlement.
Briefings and Roles
After the game I had a critical think about the player roles. I designed each family to have certain abilities that would enable them to interact in a meaningful way in the game. For example Chrissy’s character was a rich farmer who needed more labour to get all her land’s farmed and there were two other players who had surplus labout to sell.
What I failed to do was write overt briefings. Each family had a lack of some resources and needed to cooperate with other players to obtain them. Nobody was self-sufficient in everything. I wanted them to work out their role in the village from analysing their situation through game play. The problem with this approach is that the players have to grasp a new game system – hard enough – and then analyse what their role in the village is. Why not just write a brief telling them they are the rich bachelor and are looking for a wife AND design their circumstances.
All card play is both open and hidden
I think this was a great idea. One of the things I will keep in the game.
In a village community everyone eventually gets to know all your secrets. To reflect this I gave all players “player cards” and told them they could play them at the start of the turn. Cards are played face down and the player announces what the card does. This can be truthful, near to truth or an outright fabrication. At any point during the game any other player can turn the cards over and read them.
Few want to challenge the other players – they will retaliate in kind. Some players didn’t want to appear they did not trust the other player. So players wait for the card player to be distracted and then look at the card.
So all things will eventually come out.
The only character who cannot turn the cards over was the bailiff, played by me as the game organiser. Other players could of course tell me what the cards really said.
The numbers certainly need sorting out. This is a trivial thing. I have now revisted my spreadsheets and found an error – I had forgotten that grain is 5 times as nourishing (in calories) per litre than peas and beans. This is why production was not meeting consumption. A simple fix.
But I am still concerned about the dominance of the resource allocation game over the more interesting player interaction. I can further improve the playbility of the game. I am also thinking about removing some parts of the game entirely.
It is all about balance.
I want a resource allocation game to give the players meaningful decisions to take. Their circumstances in the game need to drive them to cooperate, to sell their labour, or to break some local laws to gain an advantage. But I don’t want the game number crunching or the need to shift tokens from one board to another to distract the players. They need to pay attention to the farming; and to have time to interact. Yet if they get the farming wrong, they will starve.