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Designer Diary: Endurance

Amabel Holland
United States
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Board Game: Endurance
I began working on Endurance six years ago. The idea was that it would take the "three cups" mechanism I had used in my solitaire games Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe and apply it to a non-military topic: Shackleton's 1914 expedition to Antarctica.

The game ended up not being a "three cups" game. That's one reason why it took me six years.

But there's also the fact that the person who made those other games didn't make this one. I mean this somewhat literally. For starters, there's a different name on the box.

From gallery of amabel

Three Problems

At the outset, I identified three problems I'd have to solve.

First, there was the problem of agency. The previous solitaire games I had done saw the player on the move, winning battles, solving problems, building infrastructure. The actions that you took then directly impacted how your subjects felt about your rule: aggressive actions bred hostility, conciliatory ones quieted things down. A very basic carrot-and-stick model of leadership.

But none of that really applied to this situation. This isn't a game about you making things happen, but about things happening to you, and how you and the desperate men you're responsible for react to that pressure. I needed a way to model this limited agency that didn't make you feel like you were just along for the ride.

Second, there was the problem of suffering. The expedition was an agony in a physical sense. It was bitterly cold. Malnutrition and starvation wreaked havoc on the men's intestinal systems. When they ran out of toilet paper, they wiped with ice, which chafed. During a three-day lifeboat journey, having failed to bring potable water, they sucked on pieces of frozen raw meat so that its juices could slake their thirst.

These were merely the more mundane horrors. They lived these months constantly on edge, never knowing when a sea leopard might attack, when the ice underfoot might give, when frostbite might turn gangrenous – all things which happened and easily could have proven fatal.

This is not a heroic story, not an adventure; it's a very bleak, downbeat thing. The game, then, would need to be bleak and downbeat. It would need to communicate the misery and suffering at the heart of the real-life experience. The problem is, once you gamify something – once you assign it a numerical value – players are incentivized to treat it numerically. And with a story like this, that would feel ghoulish.

Finally, there was the problem of probability. Historically, all twenty-eight men survived. Barely so, miraculously so. Which left me with the question of, how feasible should the historical result be? Which once again brings it back to the question of how the player's success should be measured. Which brought it back to the question of how much agency the player should have, and in what ways would they exercise it.

From gallery of amabel

Tight, Messy Little Knots

As is often the case with games, these three problems fed into each other in such a way that I couldn't really solve any one of them in isolation. The solution for all three would have to arrive at once, or not at all. And so I spent a long time tugging in vain at this tight, messy little knot, hoping that if I managed to loosen it a little, I would catch a glimpse of the whole design, but that glimpse proved elusive. The knot seemed intractable.

It wasn't the only tight, messy little knot I was tugging at. It wasn't even the one I had been tugging at the longest, nor the one that seemed the most intractable.

Because for as long as I could remember, there was something wrong. I didn't have the words to describe it. When I had tried, no one ever seemed to relate to it. More than that, they didn't want to relate, didn't want to be around the weird, scared, desperately earnest kid who was hurting all the time for no reason.

And I tugged at that knot for a long time – tugged at it for my entire life. Until, quite suddenly – finally, miraculously – it came undone all at once.

From gallery of amabel

Huh, Turns Out I'm a Girl

When I started hormone replacement therapy, I purposefully didn't work on Endurance and other "heavy" games. I figured, hey, I'm going through puberty a second time. I'm going to have the emotional regulation of a teenager, I don't need to soak myself in harrowing stories of suffering and survival, so I did weird cutesy things like Eyelet and Dinosaur Gauge and Watch Out! That's a Dracula! instead. Things that would give me the time and space to find a new wardrobe, figure out what I wanted, stop sleeping on my stomach (ouch), and learn how to avoid door jambs (ouch!).

Once I was a bit more together, I turned my attention back to Endurance — and I found to my surprise that not only had that knot finally come undone, but in a way, its solution was tied inextricably to that other knot.

It took me thirty-eight years to figure out my whole gender thing. Those years take a toll. The decades of dysphoria compounded over time and hollowed me out. There are so many others who were crushed by that pain – pain that was already and always too much to bear – before they could find themselves.

That was almost me. If my egg hadn't cracked when it did, I don't think I would have lasted much longer. Months, maybe. Weeks.

I was saved at the eleventh hour, and when I look back at the circumstances that led me to that moment, at the chains of coincidence that made Amabel possible – I am intensely aware of how it very nearly wasn't. How improbable it was.

And it became clear to me that the best way to honor the miracle at the heart of Shackleton's story was to lean into how improbable the historical result was. How very nearly it could have – by rights, should have – ended in disaster. I would observe the miracle not through recreation, but through its absence. This is how I addressed the problem of probability.

Because the historical result is astronomically unlikely, I couldn't very well set it as a victory condition. And as I intimated previously, I wouldn't be comfortable assigning point values to simulated human lives – particularly when each human life represents a real and specific person, who really suffered, so there would be no scoring. Indeed, no victory conditions at all. The game ends, possibly with the rescue of any survivors, and then you decide what that means.

From gallery of amabel


This framework in turn informed my approach to the problem of agency. The player exists at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, you're given a handful of options at a time.

At the beginning of a round, you draw a hand of two cards. Each card has an Action and a Test. You choose one card for its Action and one for its Test. Actions involve rolling dice and counting up successes to earn a reward. For example, a hunt action can result in obtaining meat and blubber. Tests require the use of resources – for example, a food test might see you expend the meat you hunted.

Failing an Action or a Test incurs a Penalty, resulting in men becoming demoralized. Demoralized men are less capable of completing Actions, and if they suffer a second demoralization they are injured. Injured men who suffer demoralization perish.

This core works well enough, but it lacks texture. I needed to give the player a little more control over the proceedings. And so it is that each Action has ways to modify the number of dice rolled, usually through use of a resource. For example, it's a lot easier to hunt with a rifle.

Specific men can also be flipped to their demoralized side to convert failed rolls into successes or to automatically pass a Test without the required resources. For example, flipping one of the two surgeons will automatically pass a Medical Test. Flipping one of the six dog team leaders will convert failures to successes for a sled action.

In addition to enlarging the decision space, this adds a lot of texture to the game, making specific men stand out. This also comes through in the mix of demoralization Penalties; men who were historically more prone to depression or troublemaking are much more likely to become demoralized.

From gallery of amabel

Falling Apart

As the ordeal wore on, morale naturally began to worsen. I very much wanted to capture this with the game's general arc.

As I said, you start the game by drawing two cards, selecting an Action from one and a Test from the other — but soon you'll be drawing three cards. After choosing your Action and your Test, you'll have one card left over. For that card, you'll be forced to resolve one of the Penalties. Morale starts to crack a little.

Later in the game, you'll be drawing four cards – choose an Action, choose a Test, then resolve a Penalty for each of the remaining cards. It gets more difficult to maintain morale. At the end, you'll be drawing five, and you can probably guess what happens then. Of course, with more men demoralized, it's going to be harder to succeed at those Actions, incurring further Penalties. And it's likely that you'll have fewer resources with which to pass Tests.

As the game approaches its end, the situation mathematically bends towards hopelessness and instability. It's likely that certain types of actions will become impossible to perform – forcing failure if you choose them – and certain tests impossible to pass. (As a sort of cruel joke, the threshold for the heating test at the end of the game is literally impossible.) In a way, the game is ceasing to function the way you want it to.

This isn't really new territory for me. I make weird, experimental games that are often deliberately fragile, built to become unstable. Usually this is to make a point about broken and unsustainable systems. (See This Guilty Land or For-Ex.) Here, I hope it evokes, in some small way, a certain kind of despair and desperation.

Maybe not what the men of the Endurance felt. That I have no way of knowing — but I know what my own was like, when it felt like my life was falling apart, like it had always been falling apart, like it was designed to fall apart. Until, suddenly, it all came together.

I know what it's like to feel doomed, and I know what it's like, against all odds, to be rescued. The person I was six years ago only knew the first thing and could never have imagined the second.

Amabel Holland

Board Game: Endurance
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