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Designer Diary: Ocean Crisis, or Designing a Thematic Game with Social Impact

Chi Wei Lin
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In early 2019, a game we designed called Ocean Crisis went on Kickstarter with a funding total of 68k USD. While that result won't get us hyped on a crowdfunding list, in the end we achieved some amazing milestones and managed to create social impact with this game.

Hello, guys! My name is Chi Wei Lin, the founder and director of Shepherd Kit, Inc., a publisher of children and family games from Taiwan. Ocean Crisis is one of many thematic games I've developed with designers Jhao-Ru Chen and Hsien Pu Jan that focus on simulating real world issues. In brief, Ocean Crisis is a co-operative worker placement game that depicts the real-life marine ecosystem disaster caused by pollution. The game also includes six side missions and scenarios, mainly for saving ocean animals.

Ocean Crisis took us three years to develop, with 20+ re-makes. For this project, we also worked with over a dozen environmental organizations, government departments, and ecology experts. In the end, our efforts truly paid off as we developed a game that's not only fun, but has a social impact.

How We Started

In 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection in Taiwan asked us to develop a game that talks about ocean pollution for the public. It was a time when the topics of ocean waste and plastic pollution started to take part in the mass/social media and a time when the public started to be aware of such matters. Before this project, we had no idea of what the causes and effects of ocean pollution were, but after a half year of research and discussion with government experts, we decided to adopt these principles:

1. Co-op: The game has to be co-operative. Though countries and organizations sometimes compete on environmental stats, we don't want to encourage any local wins. Instead we wanted players to focus on how to win together because the responsibility belongs to everyone.

2. No Total Solution: As a fan of Pandemic, I am aware that a "total solution" is always satisfying. However, from our studies, there is no sign of anything close to solving garbage issues on land or in the ocean. We don't want to give a false impression that one day twenty or fifty years later there'll be a savior invention, so we can do whatever we want right now.

3. Irreversible Consequences: Some of the consequences are irreversible. For example, when garbage floods into the Pacific garbage patch, then it's just an impossible situation for the tech we have now.

This is what came out in 2017, named Ocean Guardians:

Further Development of Ocean Crisis

The previous version, Ocean Guardians, was a great success when we brought it into classrooms, with primary and middle-school kids being immersed in the game. They cheered as a team when winning and even cried when their final ocean animal died along with a game failure. We were surprised with the result, and we thought about going further.

However, a big problem for our previous game was that it lacked replay value and character development. In addition, it dealt only with garbage and polluted water issues, without much interaction with the ocean eco-system, which should be the core of environmental issues. It wasn't until we started talking with various NPO environmental groups that we started to see the issue from a different angle.

In reality, the flow of ocean debris is a dynamic process. What's more, the garbage amount is just HUGE. According to the official report released by United Nations Environmental Protection (UNEP), each year there are more than eight million tons of plastic waste leaking into the ocean, equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic every minute.

This is also why we changed our title to Ocean Crisis.

A random shot from the beach of Penghu Isles, Taiwan; ocean debris is driven by the Kuroshio Current for thousands of miles

To experience all this mess, I went on a coastal clean-up journey with one of our consulting groups where we (400 participants) picked up 1.6 TONS of garbage!

In Ocean Crisis, we added these new elements:

1. Ocean Current: When we talk about coastal clean-up, more than 90% of the garbage we pick up drifted from the ocean. In reality, the ocean current can bring garbage from Asia to the Midway Atoll, a distance that covers more than half the Pacific Ocean. In the game, it is likely that the garbage will drift away to the garbage patch, but by chance, garbage might drift back to the coast for another clean-up.

Handmade ocean current disk

Actual ocean current disk.

2. Character Development: In Pandemic, characters with different traits are chosen at the beginning of a game. For Ocean Crisis, environmental protection methods are used as personal skills, and they can be learned within a game play. This will also remind the players, who in general includes kids, that they can take part of environmental acts just as their characters.

3. Skill Tree Puzzle: To demonstrate the various environmental methods that cope with garbage disposal, the main map is a tile-placement puzzle on which players can activate functions with global effects or develop personal skills.

Sketch of the land map

Different locations have different effects

4. Missions & Scenarios: The basic game is about cleaning up garbage and preventing it from going into the ocean. With the same core mechanism, six missions and scenarios can be added with only a little addition to the rules. What's more important is that the missions and scenarios complete a full picture of ocean protection from an ecological point of view.

For such complexity, we have undergone 20 game remakes, and a solid 500+ game tests with 1000+ players participating. These test group members include all adult gamers, family members, classroom students with teachers, and children groups from primary schools to middle schools.

A brief intro of the final Ocean Crisis from our Kickstarter video:

Social Impact

Though our design process for Ocean Crisis was long and even a bit tedious, our efforts eventually paid off as we made quite a bit of social impact starting with Taiwan.

Half a year before our Kickstarter, the Chinese version of Ocean Crisis had already succeeded in a crowdfunding campaign in Taiwan with 75k USD. The game was published in January 2019, and at this point, Ocean Crisis has sold more than 3,000 sets locally. Interestingly enough, our orders include purchases from over 500 primary schools and middle schools, making Ocean Crisis a mainstream material for environmental education in schools of Taiwan. A reason for Ocean Crisis' hype throughout education facilities is that the game covers a wide range of ocean environment topics. Also, due to the starting number of meeples, a single game can be extended from five players to ten.

We went on a tour for Ocean Crisis, with a total of eighty events

To further serve the needs of education facilities, we also developed a GIANT version of Ocean Crisis. Enlarging board games isn't anything new, but we managed to mass produce the GIANT Ocean Crisis and sold them to hundreds of schools in Taiwan. In this version, players are the meeples, placing themselves on the map, and the garbage tiles from the games turned out to be real garbage.

In August 2019, due to our long-term endeavor towards educational design such as Ocean Crisis, we were invited to have a conversation with Taiwan President Ms. Tsai Ing-wen on the topic of education through gaming.

In September 2019, we received a letter from the Greenpeace Turkish office. The Middle East region manager then visited us in Taipei, telling us that they are willing to collaborate with us on the public issue of "plastic reduction" by using Ocean Crisis. Should this deal be closed, our game will be seen at Turkish schools and facilities in the near future.

This month, we were invited to be one of the keynote speakers on a SPIEL '19 official panel, the topic of which is "How boardgames make the world a better place". The panel will be held on October 26, 16:00 in the Saal Berlin room. If you are attending SPIEL '19, please come and visit us. (More details on the SPIEL website.)

Frontline Defence: The Mini Version of Ocean Crisis

As an alternative to Ocean Crisis, in 2019 we also worked on a standalone mini-game called Frontline Defence. This new chapter of the design inherits the original's co-op game style, but with a lighter and quicker dice-driven game play for ages as young as 6+. Frontline Defence takes only five minutes to learn and 15-20 to play. The mini-game can be regarded as a prequel of the original one, and it can also serve as a children's version for younger ones to play before Ocean Crisis.

Thank you for reading such a long story from before and after our development of Ocean Crisis! The diary is actually longer than I expected as there was just too much happening over the years of development. Hope you enjoyed my diary!

If you will be at SPIEL '19, please come visit Shepherd Kit to check out Ocean Crisis and Frontline Defence in person at booth 5-E112!

Chi Wei Lin
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