Tuesday 23 July 2013

The Quiet Year Review

A map-making game about communities, for 2-4 players

The game, the reference cards and a home-made deck.

Winter has finally passed. We pitched our tents in The Fallow Fields, away from what few crops we had. The fields have never seen life growing in them, even while the woods have spread around us, leading all the way up the mountain. To the east there are the cliffs, we know this as we have had to use them a great many times, but we need to send people out to map the landscape. The woods contain spiders far larger than any man, so we stay at the edge. It isn’t safe to go in, and many have died. Our community is only sixty now, and each person is sacred.

The Quiet Year is a game unlike most roleplaying games I know. You don’t play a single character, instead you all play the voice of a small town, and the story’s narrator. It’s a game about community after all, not about single people.
The game lasts about 3-4 hours including the time taken to teach people it. The host of the evening reads out the first page, explaining about how this is an apocalyptic world and we have one year of relative peace to rebuild before The Frost Shepherds arrive. Then everyone reads a piece of the rules out until we’re all ready to go.
Part way through this reading, the group are pointed to a piece of blank paper, a deck of cards, an index card and some pencils. These are our tools.
Everyone has to make a choice about one piece of the landscape and draws it on the paper. This will be the map of our community.
Two of my gaming regulars, Shaun and Lee, joined me for this session. Shaun kept talking about fields of magma. He chose a dormant volcano, one that our community didn’t know about. Lee chose a forest at the base of the volcano. Then I chose cliffs by the sea on the other side of the map. We each drew our feature.
We also had to suggest an essential resource for the community. This can be physical or conceptual. Shaun picked ‘grain’, Lee picked ‘wood’ and I picked ‘safety’. Our community had one in abundance and the rest were scarcities. We decided that wood would be abundant, so Lee drew even more trees. Then I drew a giant spider and Shaun drew an empty field with a skull on it.
The abundance and scarcities were written on the index card, leaving a blank spot for the names of anyone in the community, and then we were ready to go.

A close-up of our village.

Week One: We have been sleeping in the tents for so long, no one can remember when we had a safe place to sleep. We have heard that there are fields on the other side of the volcano and have sent scouts.
Week Two: A boy, Abraham, finds a hatch, just inside of town. Scouts in the south have brought news of a rogue ostrich. What does this mean?
Week Three: Let us talk of the old people. They have no place here, they have lived long enough. Most are ill and provide nothing. The young have started to build watchtowers to protect against the spiders. We have so much wood that it will only take three weeks to finish this project.
Week Four: Abraham and his friend Ted fight over what to do with the hatch. A large amount of bodies are found at the bottom of the cliffs.
Week Five: In the distance, far away from our territory, there is a beautiful pyramid. It is larger than everything else in the region. Our people needed proper shelter, even with spring upon us, so we started to build a longhall. The scouts have returned and found more barren fields, and an old factory, long abandoned.
Week Six: A young woman, Shirley, has been using her tent as a makeshift brothel. She was sleeping with people around the town, passing on her many infections. Ted and Abraham opened the hatch, finding food, medicine and guns! We have also finished the watchtowers, making the woods seem safer.
Week Seven: There is a bad omen outside of town, circles of human teeth have been appearing at night. We don’t know what they mean, instead, we have been discussing how to deal with the guns. Some of our people are unaware of the myths surrounding them, others suggest securing them from certain people. Two go missing while we talk.
Week Eight: We have a solution to the gun problem. We throw them off the cliff, like any other problems which have come out way. We talk about the next issue, the ostrich. We don’t know what to do about it. We discuss a need to find more and breed them for mounts.
Week Nine: We have been storing food in the bunker and now we realise the problem with that. The ventilation is so poor that our food has spoiled. As a possible solution, we discover a river leading to a lake at the far edge of the woods.
Week Ten: While looking around the lake, we have seen a village in the distance, near to the pyramid. They have banners with pictures of the pyramid. They are far enough away that they are no present threat. We start to build a fishing village.
Week Eleven: There is a giant track going from the pyramid all the way to the cliffs. Nothing uses the tracks any more, but the elders talk about the myths surrounding a “train”. The longhall is finished and we have a central hub to our town because of it. We send people to trade with the pyramid-worshippers.
Week Twelve: The highest status group in our town are the young. They are builders, and can expand the community. The old cannot work the wood and are of no use. People within sixteen to thirty years old are the highest status. We try to set up a hospital, given the suspicious infections which are affecting people.
Week Thirteen: Storms destroy all of our tents. The fishing village is finished, so the fishermen stay there instead of returning to town. They kept the food with them, despite out protests. There is a good sign though, as there are ostriches on the other side of the mountain!

The end of Spring
That was spring. Thirteen short turns and we already had a lot of the town and its challenges established. We determined these events by taking one turn per week. As the host, I started, then each of us took a turn until the season was over.
A turn goes like this: You draw a card from the deck, resolve an event on it, then all projects get nearer to completion, then you take an action.
The deck of cards are just a normal deck which gives you an item in the list at the back of the book. It is possible to buy a special deck of cards in their limited edition of the game. For most people you can draw and then read the result from a list. I used OpenOffice to make cards with no numbers, just the suit and the written events. That way we’d keep in the moment as much as possible. A card might say, “You see a good omen OR You see a bad omen”. If things are going well, general etiquette says that you mess things up because that makes life interesting. If you draw the card, you tell everyone what it means and they’re not allowed to say anything about it. If they don’t like what you did, they can take a Contempt Point from the table to indicate that your idea sucked or went against their ideas. If they think you’re helping the community, put a point back. Contempt isn’t useful in the endgame, but is a good gauge of how satisfied the populace are.
Each project is represented by a little dice. You set it to the number of weeks you think the project will take, and then it gets reduced by one every turn. If it’s completed, the person who started the project draws it on the map.
Finally, you pick an action. There are three to choose from:
* Discover Something New: For instance the ostriches. You draw a little something on the map.
* Hold a Discussion: The only time you’re supposed to talk out of turn. Someone says something and everyone gets one chance to react. Just one.
* Start a Project: This is a game about building, so the search for supplies, the longhall, the hospital, these were all projects we started.

We all stopped for a coffee, then carried on…

Our resources at the start of the game

Week Fourteen: The community started hunting ostriches, herding them into a farm to the south of the town. This would take three weeks. In the longhall there was a discussion about what we hoped the envoys would bring back from the other village:
“Peace and union.”
“Knowledge about their defences… just in case.”
“New blood for our town.”
Week Fifteen: After enough infections going around the town, Shirley the disease-carrier was cast out from the town. Rumour is she’s out there somewhere, looking for a cure. The envoys never returned from the pyramid-worshippers. As we looked for them, a scout saw a second village had sprung up, with a banner of the pyramid on it.
Week Sixteen: The townsfolk are angry. Ted and one of the other kids… they went out looking for blood and not being aware of the places outside the town… they… they killed the men in the fishing village and destroyed it, thinking it was the village. It was awful. Meanwhile we started building wooden weapons. It’ll take us three weeks.
Week Seventeen: Resources we should have put into the hospital get used to make weapons instead, finishing that project early. The ostrich farm is finished and ore is discovered! A bountiful week!
Week Eighteen: The town feels bad for neglecting the hospital, driven by guilt about the elderly. They finish the hospital early while the weather is good. Ted and his friend are still missing after last week. Now they’re done with the hospital, we need a wall around the town, for our safety.
Week Nineteen: Out by the cliffs we spot men in boats. We hide and spot them setting up camp under the cliffs… where they find the guns. The people not building the walls start on some wooden houses for us. We might finally be free of sleeping in fields or the longhall… in five weeks.
Week Twenty: Summer is fleeting and time gets away from us. The ostrich farmers start training people to ride on them. Questions are raised about our foreign policy:
“I think we should make alliances.”
“I think there’s only so much land.”
But the popular opinion is that of fear…
Week Twenty-One: Abraham has gone missing! He and Ted were seen arguing outside of town. Summer storms strand the sailors by wrecking their boats.
Week Twenty-Two: Abraham’s father, Old Evan, has fallen ill. The guilt-ridden populace downed their tools to help him pull through. Now we know Ted’s outside the town somewhere, everyone talks about what to do about him. Only one voice says that we need him. The rest suggest the cliff…
Week Twenty-Three: As if he predicted the talk in the town, Ted tries to take control! A wounded Abraham returns and shoots him with one of the accursed guns which went missing. Finally there’s some hope in the village, he can be our leader!
Week Twenty-Four: We start a project to rebuild the fishing village, which will take until early autumn. Now the ostrich riders are trained they show off around the town and its newly-finished wall. As much as we want to celebrate, rumour has it that the spiders are multiplying…

The end of Summer. Our town's bigger but so are the problems

Our updated resources

Lee is the least experienced of our gaming group, and Shaun is a wild card, both can be the best and worst of my group with a stray thought, which is why I love them as players. Luckily they are the players less focused on rules, and when they let games like this in, they’re fantastic. There were a couple of derailing moments in Spring like the infectious whore, but Summer brought a lot more story both in the community and round the table.
I have been asked why we picked bad actions in this game, how did we make that happen? Sometimes the actions on the cards give you two bad choices. Quite often, we would pick the bad result if there was an option, just to make things interesting. The end goal isn’t to “win” The Quiet Year, it’s to tell an interesting story. Forcing constant success or failure is bad form and won’t feel right to the narrative of your town. And that’s why we had to strike the tents with wind, inflict three diseases on our populace and, in our second playthrough,we nuked the community. Twice.
Back to this game though, we had another coffee, and were ready to go into autumn…

Week Twenty-Five: While roaming the woods, Abraham found some hot springs, ventilated under the ground by… well, we don’t know what, but they seem hotter near to the mountain. The wooden homes are built and we celebrate again. One of the ostrich-scouts sees the sailors and pyramid-worshippers making an alliance in the distance.
Week Twenty-Six: Disease spreads! Even without Shirley, somehow. Our health and fertility are suffering, with no new births in the village for some time. Even the hospital isn’t helping us. “I blame the outsiders for the disease,” someone says.
“We need to take a hostile stance to strangers!”
“I believe sacrifices to the cliff will help us!”
Week Twenty-Seven: We have terrible news. The people building the fishing village have defected. We don’t know what they were offered. We start work on a blacksmiths… we need proper weapons, after all.
Week Twenty-Eight: A menacing tower is found near the cliffs. No one knows what it means. To stop food spoiling, we’re going to build proper food storage facilities and stop depending on the hatch. It’s brought us nothing but misery.
Week Twenty-Nine: Shirley returns, having been shunned from the pyramid-worshippers. She’s nearly dead, but we talk about taking her in and letting her die with dignity.
Week Thirty: The community is fixated on the smithy this week. It was discovered that the ore we uncovered wasn’t good enough, so we need to work even harder. A few people are talking about building a barracks. It’ll take a while, especially with the smithy as our only real drive.
Week Thirty-One: Marauders with masks and guns are in the plains in the centre of the map. They are dressed in the clothes of the envoys we sent out in spring. One night Nancy, one of the ostrich-riders, sees a hooded figure making another ring of teeth outside our wall. No one knows who it is or where they came from.
Week Thirty-Two: After weeks of giving up his own supplies for the good of others, Abraham falls ill and dies. The town mourns, and during the funeral a young mother finds out that her son is harbouring a baby giant spider. It is killed before it can grow.
Week Thirty-Three: Now we know why things have been so awful. Shirley was caught trying to burn down the town walls. She said she was under orders from the pyramid-folk. She repented when she saw the cliff, but that didn’t stop us. On the way back, one of the elders mentioned a thing called a ‘lighthouse’, apparently the strange tower is one, and not a threat.
Week Thirty-Four: Something has befouled the river. We assume it is the pyramid-folk. Our water supplies are ruined and rationing starts. We need to avenge the water-spoilage and push our problems off the cliff. The cliff will solve all our problems. That and our newly-finished smithy.
Week Thirty-Five: The barracks were finished early because of the need to start marching on our enemy. The night before we were going to march, the planets aligned behind the pyramid. A ray of light struck the top of the mountain. The old folk are scared. They keep talking of the bad times, and of signs of things to come.
Week Thirty-Six: We should have trusted the elderly, we should have prepared for disaster, not war! The mountain broke open and lava poured out. We did our best to save the town, but we did so at the cost of so many lives. The dead… they were everywhere, burning… just burning. We tried to use the ostriches to ride out of the way, but the hooded woman was actually a small group of women who let the ostriches out. All is ruined!
Week Thirty-Seven: Amongst the survivors is Crazy Ed. We’ve always hated him, but he provided a dire warning. We need to start training the spiders and using them to attack our enemies. Some of our townsfolk try and help him, while others start digging trenches to stop any more lava.

Autumn's End. And a volcano!

We didn’t even stop for a break now. The fourth deck laid in front of us. The final deck. Somewhere in here is a card which tells us the Frost Shepherds have finally arrived. Then everything would be over.

Panic at the ostrich farm

Week Thirty-Eight: As the first wisps of snow fell on our town, there was a faction trying to stop Crazy Ed’s plan, making a project which was in direct competition to Ed. We needed to stop the giant spiders. There’s more talk about how to deal with the pyramid-people. The two factions of pro-spider and pro-ostrich people stop anything from advancing. The head ostrich farmer, Dawson, derails the meeting.
Week Thirty-Nine: There’s fertile land beyond the volcano. We can move there, away from our blighted, ruined town. It will take us six weeks to prepare settlements for people to stay in, but we can last that long, surely…
Week Forty: Nancy was out looking for the loose ostriches at the start of the week and went missing. The town pulled together and found her, but all our tasks suffered for it. A shame, but we had so few people left in the town, we needed everyone to live through the winter. We found her eventually, and she said the marauders were coming…
Week Forty-One: A stranger arrived at our town. We thought he might be a marauder, but Old Evan said we should trust him. He was sickly, but he had water for us. We’ll try to make it last…
Week Forty-Two: The cold was a shock to our community and left everyone feeling miserable. Most people were ill and tired, but Old Evan took charge. Much like his son, he decided to lead us. He’ll save the town!
Week Forty-Three: The snow was too thick to see far. We knew the marauders were coming and Old Evan helped us lead our forces against them. We won, but at a terrible price. The stranger, Dominic, finally spoke. He was from the pyramid-worshippers’ village. They were fighting among themselves when the doors to the pyramid opened. The Frost Shepherds took their first steps into the world, consuming everything around them.
We can only hope that they stop with their former worshippers. Dawson left the camp, mocking us for our failed attempt to train the spiders. Our only hope is the settlement. If we can last three more weeks then all will be w—

The diary ends there. The town was unable to defend itself, torn apart by civil war, ruined by natural disasters and diseases. Our lone ostrich farmer may have made it to what little fertile land was settled out west, but no one would ever know. The hooded women, the lighthouse, the spiders and the worshippers. All of it was gone. The Frost Shepherds took all in their wake.

The End

So that was The Quiet Year…
We only made it forty-three weeks instead of fifty-two; partly thanks to summer breezing by, partly thanks to the ‘game over’ card being mid-way in the Winter deck.
It was a fun experience, and one I’d like to try again with others.
The random events were a good prompt to tell stories about this town, and the map was a nice little keepsake for when we were done. When my regular gaming group are back up to full strength I’ll let the other players describe what happened and see which memories stick.

In our discussion after the game, we wondered about what went right and wrong. The Contempt was the first mechanic in the firing line, mainly as even though it’s a physical token taken, it doesn’t seem to do anything. I can see that the mechanic was simply there as a non-verbal way of registering your objection to what someone was saying about the town, but I think we expected more of a direct interaction between them and the game. In the second game we had more Contempt both taken and given back, which I feel helped show people what was working and failing for the community at a given time.
The other mechanic which was questioned was the, “Hold a Discussion” action. In that, you ask a question or make a statement, then everyone does the same. It’s the only time we get to talk out of turn, and it’s not a back & forth dialogue. People try to make their case no matter what others say. I didn’t object to this system as it put ideas in people’s heads. Without the discussion of the ostriches would any player other than their creator have bothered with them? I think they work as a way of allowing people to chat a little about what is going on, outside of the turn structure.
The Quiet Year was more of a success at the game table than I thought, and something we will have to repeat with others to see what they make of it. Even with these two players we started talking about alternate settings. A ruined space station, a bunker somewhere. The new challenges both infinite and of our own making.
Our second game was set in an archipelago and when we started spending actions on the neighbouring communities we realised that they were all one, but they were fractured by our starting village. I performed a Hold a Discussion action which flipped the perspective to, “What should we do about the zealots on the central island?” And the people who started the community became the enemy we had to deal with for the rest of the game. Several tsunamis, nuclear explosions and assassinations later, the small outposts on the edges of the map survived and if they would make it through winter then maybe they’d be able to rebuild and unite again…

The Quiet Year is available at Buried Without Ceremony for $6 as a pdf, $25 plus postage for the book, pdf & cards, $40 for all of that in a bag with Contempt tokens, or you could pay by doing good deeds. Seriously, you can pay by doing good deeds. Kind of fitting for this game, where a good deed could be the difference between life and death for your community.

Our town at the end of the game.

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