The other day I was lucky enough to play a game of The Quiet Year at the Story Games Seattle meet-up. It is… interesting, and I mean that in both the sense that it does neat and unusual things AND in the sense that there’s a part of me which is reluctant to go ahead and say “good,” “bad,” or “mediocre,” because whatever I pick will require a whole hell of a lot of explanation. And I’m not here to be a reviewer (notwithstanding the times when I do just that, obviously). No, I’m here chat about game mechanics.
Since The Quiet Year isn’t actually out as of this writing, I don’t own it, so rather than citing a paraphrase of a memory of a rule, I’m going to quote Joe McDaldno’s brief example of play.
The Quiet Year is a game about drawing a map, specifically the map of a small community which has survived in a post-apocalyptic environment. You draw the important structures, you draw important figures, you draw terrain and animals and objects and weapons and weather and radiation and music and omens… some you draw literally, much you draw metaphorically, but every turn (which represents one week in this quiet year between the departure of the Jackals and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds) something is going to go on that map.
The map, then, is the central vector of communication, because the players aren’t people; they are the community on the page. Not heads of it, not members of it, but the thing itself… I’ve heard the players described as modes of thought within the community, which works as long as we don’t start to interpret that as factions within the community, which doesn’t. It’s very strange for folks used to playing an individual, who is free to discuss what their best tactical options are at any moment.
But communities aren’t really about discussion, tactics, or logic. Communities are about things just happening; decisions are made without anybody being consulted and everyone either runs with it or gets pissed. If you’ve lived with more than one roommate in your life, you’ve experienced this writ small: “Why’s the dish soap under the sink? Is that where we’re keeping it now? Okay, whatever.”
Obviously, the decisions faced in this quiet year are more important, but the same idea is present: decisions get made that we can’t all agree on, and the game keeps throwing decision points at us. A stranger comes to town, do we invite him in, lock him out, or send him running? If we were the heads of state we could have a conversation and a vote, but we are NOT. We’re a community too small and struggling to have a meaningful government, so we deal with people doing whatever they think best: the guys at the gate let him in. The more paranoid folks in the tower are pissed. Tension is generated. The source of that tension: the guys at the gate did something without consulting the guys in the tower.
In real life this makes perfect sense for any number of practical reasons. In the game, we need to force the issue: thus, we cannot, must not, do not consult one another. No commentary, no objections, no nothing. Not because we’re dicking one another over, no, but because in a real society, practical considerations prevent it. I just bought dish soap, it has to go somewhere, and everyone else is at work, so I’ll stick it under the sink for now. I sure as hell didn’t mean it as a political statement! But it is, because even though we can’t discuss every little topic, we are constantly affecting one another.
Everything goes on the map, but there’s no discussion about it. We all affect one another, but we can’t talk about how. All we can do is take a Contempt token, which is a visual representation of “Hey, now there’s some tension and grumbling in the community about what just happened,” or hold a discussion. The latter seems like an ideal option until you realize that A) it happens after the event of the week, which means its good for airing of greivances and long-term strategy but not any sort of “what now” conversation, and B) it prevents us from discovering anything or starting any project this week. Both of which make sense when you remember that, hey… we’re a society. We’re not three to five folks at a table, we’re three to five hundred in a compound, and we don’t have the infrastructure to put “Proposition 1: Guys, can we just keep the dish soap out on the sink?” on the ballot.
Limited, codified communication to force players to be something other than human? That’s super, super interesting.