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Interview with Brian Mayer, designer of Freedom: The Underground Railroad

Patrick Rael
United States
Brunswick
Maine
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Notes: Brian Mayer is the designer of Freedom: The Underground Railroad and co-author of Libraries Got Game: Aligned Learning through Modern Board Games. This interview was conducted by Patrick Rael, Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Maine and was originally published on April 19, 2017, on Rael's Ludica blog.

•••


Q: How did the idea for this game come to you?

Freedom came together from a number of different places. I am a certified elementary school teacher and school librarian. For the last nine years, I have worked supporting twenty-two school districts, across five counties in rural western New York. I have built up a library of modern board and card games that often directly support curriculum and student learning. I collaborate with classroom teachers and school librarians to bring games into the classroom and use them as way for students to explore curriculum. You can see the library here.

That work extended into game design, working with students to build and develop games to demonstrate their understanding and application of what they are learning in the classroom. So, the work I did using games, as well as helping students design games got me interested in design myself. I have also been a really big fan in historical, card-driven games like 1960: The Making of the President. The way that they bring in history and let students explore and understand how people and events relate and impact is a powerful tool.




That got me thinking about areas in history that do not get as much attention as they deserve in the classroom. The idea of the abolitionist movement came up, but I wasn't sure about tackling that as a subject. I had some early thoughts on what I wanted to see in the game: card-driven with people and events with a focus on the map. It also needed to be cooperative if it was going to work. But still, the topic was really daunting.

Then I had the opportunity to see Brenda Romero speak at the Strong Museum of Play here in Rochester, NY. She was there showing her game Train and talking about the work she does with games. She talked about how games do not have to be "fun", that they can explore more dark and serious topics. This, along with the growth of the serious game movement, gave me the courage to pursue the topic for a game.


Brenda Romero's Train


I think the time is really right for this growth. In talks and workshops I do, I help people newer to the hobby understand what is happening in the hobby by comparing it to where graphic novels were ten to fifteen years ago. They really started to gel into the medium they are now, but a lot of people had the reaction like: "Oh, those are comics and for kids. They can't really talk about deep topics in the same way as books." But we know that to be wrong. I really believe that games, especially if you take into that statement video games, are coming into their own as a medium for exploring the full spectrum of narrative.

Q: How did you seek to inject history into the game through particular mechanics?

With Freedom, I started with theme and began working through ways that helped bring that theme out and support it. My goal was to engage players with the narrative, with the people and events and the story that unfolded as you play the game, to get them to care about cards and cubes. I had to try to find balance between what was present and what was abstracted. For example, "lost" slaves are an abstraction of all the loss of life from conditions and brutal treatment on the plantations to the loss of life running for freedom. I also wanted to be sure that I balanced both the immediacy of helping people find their way northward to freedom with the larger goal of bringing about more institutional change. The latter took the form of the support tokens that not only control your progression through the game, but also your ability to impact the game. As you move forward, the tokens and cards get more powerful; this reflects a stronger, more organized and impactful movement.

The hardest mechanism to get right was the slave catchers. The idea of them has always been the same — that they needed to be this tense and ever-present threat throughout the game — but how to get that across was difficult and went through many iterations.




Q: Were there aspects of the historical experience that you hoped to incorporate into the game, but found challenging or impossible?

One of the many challenges with Freedom was picking a story to tell. By focusing on the story of the abolitionists, I wasn't able to give as much agency and voice as I would have liked to those who the players are working to help. I have played with expansion materials that might do that, but I haven't been satisfied that it does it in a way that I am comfortable with.




Q: What aspect(s) of fugitive slavery did you feel was most important to incorporate? Did you see yourself as making an argument or offering a historical interpretation of the subject?

I wanted to expose players to as many of the people who were a part of that history as possible, to introduce them to stories of sacrifice, courage, and loss about people they may not have known about. As far as interpretations, I really tried my best to avoid doing that. Players are abolitionist archetypes working to help people as they make their way towards freedom, while working to help raise the strength of the movement to bring about broader institutional change. These are broad goals and brushstrokes that players get behind. The game doesn't try to create scenarios or recreate history. My goal was to try to get people to connect in a more personal and meaningful way with this very important and dark time of our past, to shed light on people and events of the past that don't always get discovered.

Q: These days, historical tabletop games such as Freedom frequently use cards with historical flavor to impart a strong feeling for the past. What were your thoughts on this? In particular, are cards sufficient to make a game function as an historical argument or interpretation?

I definitely was inspired by previous historically driven card games and the power they have to give faces and images to people and events, while also providing context to how they work and the effects they have within a system. If that system is effective in capturing some of the essence of why that history is important and meaningful, I think those pieces can come together in a way that transcends the cardboard and bits. If this sounds like I am flirting with art, it is because that is where I think games are heading. As I mentioned earlier, games are really gelling into a form of expression that can have a lasting and even emotional impact on those playing.




Q: While many tabletop games are focused on light or fantasy themes, your game is about a dark and difficult period of American history. Have you encountered any concerns that the subject is inappropriate for treatment in a game? How do you respond to this?

Yes, this has come up. I can't assume to have definitive answers for these justified questions and concerns. I do think the fact that we are having conversations around them is encouraging. I think part of this comes from our expectations and definitions of what games are and what they can be. That is definitely shifting as more games help redefine what games and play can be, that they can be engaging while also being emotional and somber.

Q: Other attempts to create games around slavery have foundered. (CNN reported on one of these in August 2016.) Clearly, you must think it's possible to treat this topic in game form. What do you think is necessary in order for this challenging history to effectively meld with tabletop games? That is, if many efforts to represent slavery in games fail, what is necessary for success?

To be frank, I can't say that I handled the subject matter perfectly. I tried my best to present the material with as much respect to the people and events as I could in the design, but there were choices and decisions that will never have a right answer. For example, I specifically chose untreated wooden cubes rather than meeples or painted cubes. I also had to pick a narrative with Freedom, and I chose to focus on abolition giving up narrative and agency for those being held as slaves. It was an approach I took, but I could never claim it was the right one.




Underneath it all, my goal with the game was to try to engage players with the people and events that were a part of that struggle, and bring to light faces and actions that are often not covered in school. To tackle that, the game presents the forces for continuing the institution of slavery as elements within the game that the players are working against. It encapsulates the forces working against abolitionism within the mechanisms of the games, so that no players take on those choices or roles.

For me, the challenge to tackling a design of this type is to strive to present the details, the faces, the things that underlie the story as best you can.

Q: Freedom occupies an interesting space in the game world. On the one hand, it plays much like a "cooperative Euro", such as Pandemic or Shadows over Camelot. On the other, it is often discussed as an explicitly "educational" game, many of which (experienced gamers complain) are often not very effective examples of tabletop game technology (i.e., they are not very good games). Did you think explicitly about balancing these two values?

Because of my background, using modern games and design in education, that was very much in my mind from the beginning. I wanted to keep my feet in both spaces. Primarily, I was hoping to design a game that would resonate and be able to stand in the hobby market. But as a certified teacher and school librarian, I was also aware of the potential uses for the game in the educational space.

Well-designed games work well in educational spaces because there is an authenticity and level of engagement that comes from the experience. It is like comparing a good novel or short story to a leveled reader. Teachers use good literature because it engages students, and the teacher can explore how the text supports and relates to their curriculum. Other texts that are written with a specific pedagogical goal often fail to have the qualities of a good text and therefore do not engage students in the same way. In the end, they do not provide the same experience and students do not go out of their way to seek them out independently. So those targeted skills only get hit when being presented in a teacher-directed activity, and you lose the reinforcement and effect of student-sought engagement.

The same is true with bringing games into the classroom. By selecting games that are created to have strong gameplay and design, you have an opportunity to leverage that engagement while also using it to support connections to classroom curriculum. In both cases, the teacher needs to help to draw or highlight those connections as the resources were not created with specific pedagogy in mind, but doing so creates a powerful opportunity for learning and growth.

Thank you, Brian, for sharing your thoughts about this important game.

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