this space intentionally left blank

January 13, 2009

Filed under: gaming»roundtable

The Perpetual Train

Choosing the literary subject for an imaginary game adaptation in this month's fantastic Round Table topic was difficult, particularly since there are so many great games in fiction that could be adapted. In the end, though, one book caught my imagination more than any of the other options: China Mieville's Iron Council.

Probably the most overtly political of his novels and a New Weird take on the Western, Iron Council returns again and again to the theme of plans that spin into unpredictable motion from hidden beginnings. The "Iron Council" of the title, for example, is a train that becomes its own autonomous society after a crew mutiny, and travels across the landscape on recycled tracks. The parts of the book set in the city of New Crobuzon cover plots within plots, each of which actually serves a very different purpose from its outward intent. And indeed, it's not for nothing that one of Iron Council's central characters (failed messiah Judah Low) is a golemist, who creates lumbering simulacrums of life from whatever materials are at hand.

Mieville's other books would probably make great RPG supplements--something Mieville has probably already considered, since he's an avowed D&D geek--but that's the easy way out. Iron Council, on the other hand, has the vivid central image of the Council itself, which thunders out into the frontier aimlessly before being called back to the city to support a populist rebellion. This concept of a train that charts its own destination, to me, cries out for a physical analog. So, while I'm not a game designer and will not be going into specifics, I'd love to set this up as a board game--but one where the path is created during play, by the players.

Before the start of the game, the board is an empty cardboard frame, which the players will fill with hexagonal tiles as play continues. In one corner, a tile showing a cityscape is pre-placed--this is New Crobuzon, where the game begins and ends. Also before the first turn, each player is issued a set of tokens: a large Role card, a pile of board hexes, and a set of Intercession cards. Finally, there's a single playing piece: the Iron Council itself, which is used to keep track of the end of the path (this isn't technically necessary, since usually the path doesn't double back on itself, but it's handy and a nice visual touch).

In theory, Iron Council: The Game (or ICTG, for the sake of expedience), is won by returning the Council to New Crobuzon successfully: everybody wants that to happen. But each player's Role card, representing a character from the book, dictates a certain set of conditions (time frame as represented by tiles on the board, cards in play, and position of other players) for that particular player to "win the game." For example, a player who draws Ann-Hari, the prostitute who becomes a revolutionary leader, wins if A) the Council remains intact and B) returns before the Mayor can crush the Toro rebellion, but not before C) a certain number of Intercession event cards with her name on them are brought into play. Role cards also come with a special ability that's spelled out on the card unique to each role: Judah Low can play Golem tokens to bolster the Iron Council's position on Intercessions, Weather Wrightby can look through other players' cards once per game, and Qurabin can permanently reduce his hand size by one to counter some events.

Each turn, players go around the circle laying down hex pieces to guide the track being laid for the Iron Council. The pieces have a picture of a track on them (either straight or curving to a different hex side), and the track has to form a contiguous line, although it can "overlay" old tracks if the path curves back on itself. After placing the track, each player can play a card from their hand, with varying effects depending on the card and sometimes which Role card the player was assigned. Track tiles are also tagged with a number, which is used as a random number generator for certain cards.

Here are some sample Intercession cards:

  • Attack of the Inchmen: This card is a MONSTER ATTACK Event. Choose a player to be the target. That player draws a hex tile at random from their pile. If the number is greater than 6, the player puts this card in play (places it in front of them) and must skip their next turn. "Colossal and grossly tubate, a caterpillar body studded with tufts, ventricles opening and closing sphincters, dun and specked with warning colours. The man torso congealed into the front of that yards-long body, hip bones into larval flesh. The inchman moved."
  • Runagate Rampant, Track's End Supplement: Play this card to force a single player to show their hand and discard any events for TRT, Weather Wrightby, or The Mayor. "You stupid lackeys. Your order is built on sand. Tomorrow the Iron Council will move on again, and to your horror it will proclaim with its whistle blaring: We say: We were, we are, we will be."
  • Women's Strike: This card is an event for: Ann-Hari, Judah Low, Thick Shanks. For the next turn, players can either play an Intercession card or lay down a board hex, but not both. "--We'll not do it no more for promises, she says to Judah. --No pay no lay."
  • Drogon, the Whispersmith: Weather Wrightby can play this card at any time. All other players can play this card if the most recent track hex is an 8 or a 9. You may look at the current player's hand before they have played any Intercession cards and choose one to play for them. "It was a petty field, subvocalurgy: the science of furtive suggestions, a rude footpad technique. But this man had made it something more."
  • Other possible cards: Spiral Jacobs, Sisterhood, The Weaver, New Crobuzon Militia, Judah's Time Golem, Stiltspear's Gift.
As I've said, I'm not a designer and I don't pretend to be, so the full deck would need to be tweaked and considered. The goal is to simulate, if only faintly, Iron Council's focus on the lifecycle of social movements--how they grow from disparate sources, develop, become potent, and then fracture or are defeated. To that end, players should be pushed to cooperate up to a point by common goals, then be increasingly tempted in the endgame (as the Iron Council approaches New Crobuzon again) to betray one another, either in self-interest or out of the character's principle.

Iron Council is a rich story covering a wide set of characters and locations away from the perpetual train--surely a video game could tell its story far better? Perhaps, but two caveats make the narrower focus of the board game more appropriate. First, Mieville's imagery would be, I think, ill-served by fixing it into polygons. Take his description of the Bounty Man, for example, or the creation of the time golem:

It could not always clearly be seen. The crude rips in the temporal from which the golem was made gave it edges like facets, an opalescence of injured time. From some angles the train was hard to see, or hard to think of, or difficult to remember, instant to instant. But it was unmoving.
You know how that gets translated into a game engine: some translucent polygons, a volumetric fog, and a stylized blur effect. I can see that in my head, and the pleasure of the prose is lost.

Second, the group dynamic of a boardgame makes it more suited to the spirit of the novel, if not the letter. Mieville says in an interview with The Believer: of the things that I think as a socialist is that there is absolutely nothing wrong with humans wanting to intervene in the world, wanting to exploit the world, wanting to change the world, wanting to bend the world to their will. What goes wrong for me is not that people want to do that, but that they do it under conditions of capitalism, which they don't control.
The interaction between players isn't formalized in a board game the way it would probably be in an electronic program. Under what conditions will they choose to operate? And more importantly, how could the game make them think about those conditions? I don't know for certain that my game would do it--but I doubt that video games, the mechanics of which tend to be steeped in capitalism, would have a chance. And it certainly couldn't compete with the assembly of a physical board in the same way, a process that evokes the spirit of intervention and exploration that Mieville's trying to portray.

Who else wants to talk?

Future - Present - Past