Rantin' and Rovin'

Stringing the Past: An Archaeological Game

Last week I posted some thoughts about the recent archaeogaming unconference. Probably the main thought there was that we can create games that convey a scholarly argument, but we have to figure out what our argument is before we start creating the game. Different arguments will require different game mechanics and mediums to portray them in the best possible way.

So last week I started brainstorming about my own research: beads from early medieval Scotland. I recently presented my master’s research at the SAAs in April, and wondered if I could turn that paper into a game of sorts.

My primary arguments in that paper was primarily that Scotland’s bead culture in the early medieval period is distinct from those of their neighbors, and that within Scotland, there are hints of regional differences in bead culture as well.

But how do you turn that into a game?

Enter Stringing the Past, a board game currently set in early medieval Scotland.

Your starting place is determined by drawing one of 8 region cards, and you start at the largest site in that region. You would then draw 3 goal cards aiming to collect certain types of beads.

Sample gameboard idea

Sample board idea, though there are probably too many spaces…

There are 3 phases to your turn: Travel, Market, and Trade.

In the Travel phase, you can move up to 1 space over mountains, 2 over hills or marshland, and 3 over flatland, forest, river, or coastal tiles. You can also stay put.

In the Market phase, if you are at a town/city, you may visit the market. This market holds all of the beads found at that site. You may obtain these beads through one of 2 ways. You may choose a bead to acquire and roll a die to see if you succeeded in purchasing it from the market. The rarer the bead, the higher the roll required to obtain it. You may also trade some of your own beads for the bead you wish to obtain. The rarer the bead, the more beads will be required to trade.

In the Trade phase, if you are sharing a tile with another player, you may attempt to trade beads with them. The terms of the trade are up to you, and there is no minimum of maximum trade.

At the end of your turn, if you are not happy with your goal cards, you may discard all of them and draw 3 more. If you choose to discard, you must discard all 3 and begin with all new goals.

Each time you complete one of your goal cards, you must display it face up and draw another goal card. Each goal card is worth 1, 2, or 3 points depending on the difficulty of finding the matching beads. Play ends when one person has completed 10 goals. Each player then totals the points of their completed goals, and the person with the highest score wins.

In that sense, my argument would be inherent in the game. The beads available in any given location would be taken from the archaeological evidence, so you would come to realize certain beads are only available in certain regions. You would also likely realize that if you start in the Hebrides and have to get beads from southeastern Scotland, that’s going to be quite the trek, and you may decide to ignore or discard that goal. In essence, you would be recreating the mechanics of trade and travel that we think we’re seeing in the archaeological record.

What’s great about this is that you can make all sorts of expansions for it that include other regions of the world. You can also have an expansion that adds bead manufacturers to the picture and provides mechanics for collecting glass and making beads. You can have an expansion for long-distance travel, by land, sea, or both. You can incorporate merchants traveling from a distance who have a much wider variety of beads, and you can use different chronologies to complicate the picture.

And now that I’ve written all this down, I really want this to be an actual game.

7 thoughts on “Stringing the Past: An Archaeological Game

  1. Shawn

    Yay! One of the goals for any unconference is that something should happen as a result! Have you play tested it with anyone yet?

    1. Heather Post author

      I wish! I came up with half the mechanics today, and haven’t made any of it (just a mock-up of the board). But I would play test it in a heartbeat if I actually had the pieces. Part of me would love to have an html version of it to play with people online, like Catan or Ticket to Ride does, but I’m not well-versed enough in code to do that.

  2. George

    The key to any good game is the goals have to be worth it–you have to be able to say “Checkmate!” at the end, or lay down “Quiz” with the “Q” on a triple-letter square. So, the lessons about beads need to emerge from the play, and the goals need to be less about the beads themselves and more about what the beads mean/can do for the owner (Which after all, is true for archaeology itself–the artifacts are awesome, we agree, but the real fun is in the imagining of the lives that created and were touched by the artifacts). For example, a goal of “Acquire ten red beads,” isn’t as exciting as, “The sister of your sweetheart has a necklace of red beads that broke and she lost several of them. Using your skills as a travelling merchant, bring back ten red beads to some your love.” Or, “The Earl of Plaid has announced he will grant twenty acres of modestly damp moorland to anyone who can match with beads the color of the queen’s hair” (gold-hatch!). NOW, we’re talkin’.

    Oh, and hexagons are almost always preferred over squares. A second technique is to use “Areas” or “roads and nodes” With difficult terrain being smaller areas or shorter roads between nodes (towns/resting spots). For example, a mountain pass might be a small area (counts as one move point even though you don’t get very far) or have a Node (camp) in the middle. What can be fun is that at each stopping point there is a chance to meet someone who has either beads to trade or knowledge about beads in general. How cool would it be to be sitting at a wind-swept campfire at the summit of Dead Brit Pass, sharing the King’s (pilfered) mutton with a wizzen Celt who, in unwrapping a linen cloth, revels the red beads you so desperately seek?

    1. Heather Post author

      I agree with the idea that hexes would be better and that the goals need to be something more substantial than just “Find 5 red beads” or whatever. I think I prefer the hexes idea to the nodes largely because that would allow people to travel in pretty much any direction, though how to do that for all of Scotland will be interesting.

      I think my goal is to make the “argument” about beads basically just inherent in the game. Making it the end goal would be more than a bit boring, and it’s not really something that can be an end goal. Does that make sense?

  3. Tara Copplestone (@gamingarchaeo)

    Awesome! Really exciting to see some projects starting to come out of the unconferece and I think you have a really great start to a game here – a interesting subject area with some fascinating potential mechanics! I hope you do pursue this a bit more as I think it could be really special!

    Three minor points which are rather subjective to my own ideas about games:

    1) I agree with George that hex (eg settlers of catan) or road systems (eg hansa teutonica) is preferred in in most table top requiring directional movement (road systems with nodes would work particulary well for this I think)
    2) I think there is room to really focus on, systematise and turn the mechanics of how trade and aquisition strategy worked in a competitive and strategic market rather than sitting as randomised goals for goals sake. This way there is the potential to add another layer of complexity and strategy and use goal cards as optional goals worth significant amounts of points, perhaps using as George said a more narrative driven approach (get special beads for X or Y), which puts you in the position of strategising how to achieve the goal whilst maintaining the existing economy or whether the risk versus reward is too great etc – contested resources is another great way to engage this (ie: there being multiple goal cards to aquire X bead, but only one of that bead type so multiple players are trying to contest it).
    3) Using goal cards as both points and end-game means puts a cap on your agency and upper potential for strategy as well as potentially creating some wierd time-frame differentials (ie: if I draw 10 cards worth 1 point which take me 8 turns to complete versus someone who draws 10 3 point cards which takes 100 turns to complete). Perhaps locking it to a timeframe / countdown (ie: each round represents a year and you play x rounds) would lift that double issue?.

    Somthing like what you have already, or another version would be easy enough to prototype up on table-top simulator – http://store.steampowered.com/app/286160/ – give me a yell if you want a hand at all as I would be happy to help! Excited to see where this project goes!

    1. Heather Post author

      Thanks for all the pointers, Tara! I agree that hexes are preferred, especially because they provide more options for movement. The road system with nodes could work as well, I just haven’t thought as much about how to make that work. I kind of like the idea of the player finding their own path, especially since that’s what they would have done in Scotland at this time anyway. There’s a small part of me that wants to try a mixture of the two – a road system in areas that could have had road/path systems, but hexes for completely uncharted territory (e.g. most of the highlands). But that’s crazy complicated and unnecessary.

      It seems like I didn’t describe the goal system well, since multiple people made similar comments. They are meant to be strategic and competitive (multiple people potentially competing for the same thing or certain goals taking too long or too much effort to finish). I imagined them as being similar to the goals in Ticket to Ride, with more difficult goals being worth more. In that sense, the end game being completing 10 goals (not ten points, but 10 goals) means that someone completing ten 1-point goals could still easily lose if someone else completes only four 3-point goals. Also, the discard mechanic should stop anyone from only drawing the higher point (and more difficult) goals. If they have 3 goals that are impossible to complete, then they discard for new ones. Though the discard mechanic likely needs work, and also the point system for goals.

      BUT, I definitely agree that there need to be alternate ways to gain points. Perhaps something like a “Most traveled” card or “Furthest from home” sort of thing, where you can take a big risk to travel, but it (hopefully) pays off. There could also be a simple mechanic of each bead in your collection by the end is worth a certain amount of points depending on how rare it is.

      Part of the goal for the mechanic of starting in different regions was to add to the strategic factor as well. If you start in the highlands, then goals for the highlands are easier for you, but a goal requiring beads from the Borders region are far more difficult. If you star in the Borders region, you end up with the opposite effect.

      I wonder, actually, if that’s another factor for how goals should be valued. Goals you complete from your home region are worth the amount stated on the card, but goals completed from others are worth twice as much. Or would that just make it more confusing?

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