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Saturday, May 28, 2022

Elli Amir Interview Part Two: Worldbreaking on an Anti-Colonial Scale

by | published Wednesday, February 2, 2022

This is the second part of my conversation with Elli Amir, designer of Worldbreakers, a two-player duelling card game set in an alternate 13th century. In yesterday’s part one Elli told the story of how a Magic- and Netrunner-obsessed kid from Israel came to design their own game. Today Elli and I discuss their design philosophy—and specifically, why they wanted their game to be anti-colonial and anti-hegemonic.

DW

So once you decided to begin working on your own game, where did you start?

EA

I have a good friend. His name is Rob. At the time he was on a break from his life as well. We decided that for the next two months we’re just going to work together on this game idea. Eventually, he left and I was doing something else, but for two months we had these regular conversations, and playtests, and ideas. It was really a furnace for building the heart of the game.

From that period came two important things. One: the central mechanic of Worldbreakers is the idea that, much like Netrunner, you have four actions per turn. But much like worker placement games, you alternate between the actions. So you take an action, then your opponent, then you again, and so on.

DW

As opposed to Netrunner, where one player takes all their actions and then it switches to the other player, so there’s much more interaction and back-and-forth right away.

EA

Yes. And that had both constructive and destructive implications, both of which were positive. The constructive implication was that this inherently produced the attention that I was aiming for because I wanted to talk about sequencing and timing, and this mechanic is all about that, so it became a central part of the game.

The destructive part was that I could completely discard the Netrunner timing structure. What I mean by that is that Netrunner is a very complicated game because as you do actions, your opponent can respond to them so even though it’s your turn, even though it’s your action, your opponent has different ways to interrupt. Most notably when it’s the Runner’s turn the Corporation can just flip cards face up and activate them. It’s called ‘rezzing’ cards. And that means that the timing structure of the game is just very complicated.

But with Worldbreakers, since you alternate every action, there is no need for these interrupts.

DW

Right, and there’s no need for rules about resolving conflicts between Instants, and all the Reactions. Which is a problem inherent to most CCG’s, really.

EA

Exactly. When you look at Magic: the Gathering, it took them about 25 years to get timing right. So designing strong timing rules for games is incredibly difficult, and I just sidestepped that whole discussion by inherently designing the game in a way that you can always respond. You take an action, but in five seconds they’re going to take an action, and they’re going to be able to do something.

That was the big mechanical breakthrough.

DW

Okay, but it occurs to me that it also makes it more difficult than to put together the kind of combos that you can pull off in Magic and other CCG’s because at every step of the way the other player can respond. Like in chess.

EA

Yeah, I agree and part of it is by design. If you play Magic nowadays, sometimes you’re in a situation where you sit there and your opponent plays their turn and plays and plays and plays and you’re just like, OK I’m going to get a cup of coffee, I’m going to go to restrooms, just let me know when you win, let me know when you’re done. And that’s not fun.

DW

Right, and that happens even at the championship level.

EA

But the other part of it is you still have the mechanic of putting all the dominoes in place. But instead of just setting up the dominoes and pushing them in one turn, you spread them out. And as you set up the dominoes, your opponent can show up and disrupt your plans. Which personally I think it’s exciting.

And there are a handful of cards that allow you to go off and have these crazy turns. But instead of this happening three or four times per game, like with Magic: the Gathering, it happens every two to four games. Every once in a while you will do something crazy and your opponent’s like: “Oh my gosh, that was incredible!” and you win the game. But that’s the exception. It’s not the rule. Which in my mind makes these moments much more interesting.

DW

When you started to work on this, did you already have a theme in mind or were you working from the mechanics or was it a little bit of both?

EA

Thematically, the one thing I knew is that I want the game to be pre-Colonial. In particular pre-European hegemony. And in fact I wanted the game to be anti-hegemonic.

DW

And why was that?

EA

A few reasons. One, I just can’t play with knights and wizards and dragons and princesses. I just…I just can’t do it anymore. I’ve been doing it since I was six, so for thirty-two years.

DW

But those are fantasy tropes, not settler or colonial tropes.

EA

Right, but if you if you start looking into literature around it, and especially if you start speaking to other indie developers, it’s quite clear that a lot of it is rooted in colonialism. For example, the idea of green-skinned races like orcs and goblins being inherently evil and bloodthirsty, and slavery is fine within these societies. Look at Warcraft, one of the biggest video games franchises out there. One of the protagonists of Warcraft 3 is an orc who is an emancipated slave. These are all connected, so while I agree that they’re not inherently colonialist, they are strongly colonialist in sentiment.

DW

I see. I do know there’s certainly been a lot of discussion about this in the RPG world. Isaac Childres posted a long announcement around these very issues in terms of how they’ve affected Frosthaven’s development. And there’s been a lot of deconstruction of Gygax-era Dungeons and Dragons. And so on.

EA

Exactly, yes. And not only didn’t I want to perpetuate it: I wanted to go against it. So one of the thematic ideas is that I wanted Worldbreakers to be explicitly anti-hegemonic. I wanted to be able to say: here is a story where there is no one big power that controls everyone—as opposed to our timeline where for centuries that power was Europe or the Western world or European people. And that was the starting point. I started from a fictional setting that was loosely based on North America and on Native Americans and the societies that existed in the in the Americas before the white people came and killed everyone.

DW

Where did you go for your research into finding such a period?

EA

Well, my life was in transition at the time so I didn’t get very far at first. But I was working with Ronald my friend on this, and Rob is a former historian and he has a lot of knowledge and experience with history. He did some research and he said, “Wait, how about the 13th century?” He actually came up with a few possibilities–like if you go even further back if you go to pre-Christian times you can look at the Levant, you can look at North Africa, and of course you can look at the Americas pre-colonialism.

But he came up with the 13th century and the 13th century was perfect because 13th century Eurasia had a world system, and historically what this means is that there was transfer of goods, knowledge and people all the way from eastern Asia to central Europe. And no one actor was a dominant force at the time. There was a period of a few decades under the great Genghis Khan, where the Mongols were on track to become that dominant power. But he passed away and the empire got fragmented into different tribes.

But there were other major powers like Mamluk Egypt, there was India, there was Russia, there were the Champagne fairs in Europe. And there was there were three trade routes that went all the way from China to Europe. So not only could you get from one place to another relatively safely, you had options and you could choos–United, Delta or JetBlue.

So that was exciting and also that period has a lot of characters that people know, for example Marco Polo. There are other characters as well, such as the Mongol people, different factions within India.

It’s close enough that people know it. But it’s far enough that there is a lot to learn and a lot to teach about it. This is pre-Renaissance, before Europe started taking over and there are a lot of interesting factions to talk about.

DW

Sure, you’ve got the High Middle Ages. You had a lot of things happening in what we call ‘Moorish Spain’. There was a lot going on then that later on retrenched because of the Black Plague and various things in the 14th century.

EA

Right. So the period was just perfect to what I had in mind and starting with that I slowly started focusing on where the story of Worldbreakers actually took place. I constructed a two-year storyline that goes all the way to North Africa and Eastern Europe. But for the starting point, it starts on this border within modern-day Iran, which is somewhere between Mongolia and Persia.

The thing I kept coming back to was: let’s talk about stuff which is not white, and people wearing armor and fighting each other with lightning bolts.

DW

OK, I understand now how you set up Worldbreakers as pre-colonial–but what took it over the bridge to be anti-hegemonic?

EA

It was the idea that there is no one hegemonic power that controls a big chunk of the world or dictates the culture of such a big part of the world. And choosing the Mongols as protagonists for this is perfect because the Mongol people, even as conquerors, were very open to other religions—unlike other conquerors that came in and forcibly converted whomever they conquered. Their management of their empire was very interesting and very different than what we’re used to from Western civilizations. So even if they are the protagonists, even if they are the conquerors I still think of them as anti-hegemonic because they did not want to force everything they believed on everyone.

Tomorrow we’ll conclude by discussing the cultural and historical research that went into designing the Mongol and Arab characters of Worldbreakers. See you then!


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