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My Non-Digital Games & Tears

May 1, 2009

Yesterday, I talked at the Triangle Games Summit about three of the six games in my series The Mechanic is the Message. It was an overwhelming experience that the Escapist was fortunately there to capture, because I don’t know that my memory would have done the experience justice: How a Board Game Can Make You Cry.  I did not see the woman who left crying, but I did see people in the audience crying, and someone came up to me after and said some beautiful things, apologized for her tears and then hugged me.

It was the best player reaction I have ever received. It was amazingly moving for me, too. When I left the conference, I called three of my friends, all fellow designers, who are very familiar with the series and tried to explain what had happened. It is all so phenomenally unexpected. I don’t know if you’ve ever made something so different, that you feel tremendously vulnerable with it. Well, that’s how I feel with this series. I am grateful to the designers who attend Project Horseshoe who pushed me to show the games to someone and especially to Ian Schreiber and John Sharp who have been listening to me talk about these games for nearly two years now.

I’ll be showing three of the actual games at the Game Education Summit this summer. There’s only one of each, and they are intentionally not-digital.  As a note, Train was the game that Rabbi Belzer of Mickve Israel called a work of Torah. It remains the most amazing review I have ever received (including those with awards attached to them).

16 Comments leave one →
  1. May 1, 2009 4:33 pm

    Brenda, I was moved just by reading the linked article. To be able to invoke those experiences through game design is truly amazing.

    • William B permalink
      May 2, 2009 2:54 am

      No offense, but I think what you have is a hybrid of game and performance art… when you have to smash glass as part of the game merely for shock effect, then the game isn’t doing the emotions, you and the theater are. I am very intrigued on the subject of art as games, but I personally feel it may never happen… the mechanics would have to be the source of emotion to win the argument for me. Diplomacy is the closest… but it is anger at betrayal.

      I think anyone can do theme and story… RPG’s can cause tears all day… they immerse in story.

      The fact that your speaking made people cry might speak to you as an orator, but that is not the same thing as a person crying in a board game as a player.

      Regardless, as an amateur game designer myself, I would love to check out the rules or play the game in person.

      All designers know the true test of any game’s quality is in the hands of strangers with you nowhere in sight as designer…. instead you seem to take a holocaust game to people firmly connected to the holocaust and get tears… I could do that, honestly. That is why I am curious to see the rules and/or play the game.

      If the game is just art for art’s sake, then please ignore all of my comments… but if you want to be taken seriously in the non-electronic market, you get the game to market and the people at boardgamegeek rate it.

      With you in spirit,
      Willi B

      • May 2, 2009 7:35 am

        Hi Will,

        Thanks for the feedback. The game is going to be a few places this summer, so there’s a possibly to see if for sure. I don’t want it on the market, though, and it’s not ever going to be distributed like a traditional game. I am making only one, the one you see in the pic. So, it’s already done and published in that sense.

        Regarding the talk, yes, the response was very surprising to me. As a note, these people weren’t connected to the Holocaust in a way you seem to suggest. I gave the talk at a game developers conference, and the talk wasn’t billed as anything that would have indicated that. The Holocaust is horror to everyone, though.

        Once people know what it is about, however, no one plays it, and the game always ends when someone pieces together either the symbolism in board itself or reaches the terminus. To date, there’s never been a conventional end to the game except when I tested it with other endings just to be sure the mechanics held up. In the rules, it states that “Train is over when it ends.” So, technically, the game has been finished on multiple occasions, but by conventional standards, everyone stops when someone gets there. Only once have I had someone not know the name on the terminus card. It shocked the other players (and me).

        Regarding the glass, players don’t need to smash the glass. The glass in the window panes is already smashed. The glass that lies under the window itself can be smashed by players, but it doesn’t have to be.

      • May 3, 2009 6:20 pm

        I’ve kind of noticed a few, atleast electronic, games these days that have a message. And it strikes me as the same problem – it’s some game, and it’s some performance art. They do not blend into one thing, they just kind of sit next to each other. Maybe one directs attention to the other, but so do the lights in a stage play but you wouldn’t say the lights are part of the play.

        I think for them to be really blended, the game mechanics need to actually change the message given. If in actual play accounts they are shown to change it to a message the games author in no way intended or expected, that’d be proof the mechanics can change the message.

        I don’t think it’s an easy area of design. But, perhaps just to me, games which have one message and one message only, seem to preach. That can work in a movie, because they entertain you while delivering a message. But in a game, if you were enjoying the strategy, then the message is a distraction. And if you ignore the strategy and pay attention to the message, there is no entertainment supplied with the message (were ignoring the strategy) – it’s just given starkly by itself. It just doesn’t seem to work, in my view? Except, perhaps, where people already agree with the message. But in that case, the message challenges no one – it’s like preaching to the choir.

  2. May 2, 2009 1:50 am

    One thing that strikes me about Train is the lack of replayability. Certainly, when players come to fully realize the message of the game, it’s job is done. In that sense, and with regards to the actual subject matter, it’s interesting that the game ends up being most effective for new players, rather than those already familiar with it. It seems to me that it’s something that you can only get away with through hand-made board games. Obviously, commercial production is not the primary goal of your series, but how do you possibly market a game that you can only play once? On second thought, rereading your post, it does seem to be the perfect format for education. Each student only needs to play it once, but each year you’ve got a new batch of players.

    • May 2, 2009 7:39 am

      That players only play it once (and so far, that has been the case) is telling, and it’s intentional. Complicity in the machine – if you knew where you were taking them, would you do it again? – is a recurring theme SS prosecution and defense. The game is an effort to address that. So far, the answer is no. People won’t even play the game if they have a sense of what its about. Interestingly and intentionally, though, the rules allow for players to play in such a way that they free everyone. So, you can be present in the machine, as it were, resist and work against it and help everyone get away.

  3. Jeff Allers permalink
    May 2, 2009 6:03 am

    It is very interesting how you were able to use the medium of game design in much the same way architect Daniel Liebeskind designed the Jewish Museum here in Berlin. Both the museum and your “Train” game encourage a closer emotional connection to historical events than those mediums have accomplished in the past.

    I am not certain, however, that it can truly be called a “game”, by your own definition, of “continuously presenting a player with a series of positive meaningful choices.” Such choices obviously have no place in something so horrible–other than the choice not to play again…ever.

    I do however applaud your efforts to use this framework to produce an interactive art that undoubtably leaves a lasting impression on the “players” and viewers alike.

    • May 2, 2009 7:44 am

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks. Yeah, there are no positive choices if you know what this game is about, except the choice not to play. As I noted below, the rules do intentionally allow for players to let everyone escape, too. To date, except in tests to assess the validity of that (2x with people, mostly done in Excel), it’s never been done.

      An adjustment to my comment in your quote about games – they’re good if the player sees multiple positive paths forward (Civ Rev being an outstanding example of this). If you don’t know what this is about, you do have those choices here. Art historian and game designer John Sharp called it a conceptual game, and I think what he’s getting at is this – it’s simple enough that you don’t need to play it to get it, and the impact is not fully lost there. It’s just different.

  4. jofsharp permalink
    May 2, 2009 11:31 am

    Yes, that is what I meant by calling Train a conceptual game.

    I’m really curious to see how people more closely related to the art world respond to these games. A glimpse of the develper community response is available here, on the IGN article, and in the comments on Raph Koster’s blog, and there has been a response from members of the Jewish community. The game hasn’t really reached the shores of the art world yet. Looking forward to their responses.

  5. May 2, 2009 1:56 pm

    Reading “How a Board Game Can Make You Cry” reminded me of several things I’d forgotten and was inspired. Since I have a different definition for what a game is, I consider those as games, and would love to see those board games made into a digital format for one reason, easier sharing. Could even be a project for several students in media, design and development.

    My blog post reacting to “How a Board Game Can Make You Cry”:

    Another thing that popped into my head about these board games is possibly creating an extensible board game kit. The idea is that games like these could be created once and the design could be replicated by those with the kit.

    • May 2, 2009 10:37 pm


      There are certain aspects of this game that would not survive the transition to digital (having physical broken glass, for example, which is symbolically significant and would lose some of that significance if it were abstracted digitally). It would reach a wider audience for sure… but then, did the actual trains taking Jews to the death camps have a particularly wide audience? Would a virtual tour of Auschwitz in Second Life be as significant as visiting the physical location in person? I’m just not sure it’s the kind of game that lends itself to that.

      As for an extensible board game kit (in general), see

  6. Jeff Allers permalink
    May 3, 2009 3:48 pm

    I was not aware at first that the end of the game was a surprise to the players. It seems pretty obvious, to me at least, where you’re going with loading pawns into black boxcars.

    • Bbrathwaite permalink
      May 3, 2009 5:01 pm

      You are right, sometimes people do know the outcome. There is more than one way to approach the game.

  7. Amanda d'Adesky permalink
    May 4, 2009 9:10 am

    The attendee who left the conference room in tears and the young woman who spoke to you afterward, hugging you and apologizing for her tears are one and the same. I know this because she is me.

    I initially left the room in order to compose myself so that I could talk with you without looking like a blithering idiot. Those tears in particular were for the works you had created (my husband is a half-Haitian Jew, wrap your mind around that one) and the absolute force of will you needed in order to continue working on such horrifying subject manner. Many people would balk at the idea of creating such games in the first place, let alone have the courage to see it all through to completion. I would like to think I could have that kind of wherewithall, but I really don’t know for sure. Your actions are awe-inspiring.

    The tears I shed upon sitting down to talk to you as you packed up your briefcase, though, were different. Those were the tears of a grateful soul. The first day of TGC, I became greatly discouraged. I had basically been told by many that there was no place for “real” writers in the games business because, “Well, after you write everything, what the heck are we supposed to do with you for the rest of the production cycle?” In addition to that, everyone wanted digital evidence of my worth as a designer, and all I have right now is the written word.

    I was devastated. But your words changed that. You told me that the written word was really all I needed, and that everything else would come in time. It is hard to put into words how, exactly, you’ve have given me hope that I will find where I fit in this industry, but you have. And for that, I am grateful.

  8. May 4, 2009 12:35 pm

    I was in this presentation, and can tell you that even with an inkling of what was going on, the group shock was palpable. I was not in tears, but caught my breath when the Brenda reveled the ending. I spent a few minutes before the reveal thinking ‘no. not that. this isn’t about that.” The anticipation was tinged with apprehension, and made it a very visceral event, just listening about the game. The article gives less detail than Brenda’s talk, which in turn gave less detail than playing it (I assume). And abstracted out twice, the game wouldn’t have as strong as an impact.

    I think that digitizing this game would be a travesty (and am excited that Brenda has no plans for it) as the experience of the game would be disrupted. I’m not even sure it would be appropriate for it to be played without Brenda there. The call for digitize a game like this, or that it isn’t really a game belies an overemphasis on medium in game design. This is most certainly a game, and only being able to play it once does not make it any less so. If the meeple were boxes instead of jews on the way to Auschwitz, then the game would feel like a simple resource acquisition game. The context creates a new dynamic, and that is the power of this (and the others that Brenda presented) game, IMO.

  9. Luke McCampbell permalink
    May 5, 2009 10:15 am

    Have you considered packaging these
    games for resale to home schools and schools?

    A good site for that is curclick that sells pdf educational

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