We’re talking to Elli Amir, designer of Worldbreakers, a two-player duelling card game set in an alternate 13th century. Part one on Tuesday covered Elli’s journey to designing his own game; yesterday they talked about the anti-colonial and anti-hegemonic heart of the game. Today we conclude by peeking behind the curtain at how Elli tried to ensure their treatment of Mongol and Arab culture in the world of Worldbreakers was both historically accurate and culturally sensitive.
FYI: all the artwork accompanying the interview is card art from the game. And now, on with the show:
After you decided to focus on the Mongols, where did you then go for your research? You also mentioned on your Kickstarter page that you hired someone to guide you with that, so talk to me about that part.
The starting point was I went on the historians Reddit and I just posted a thread saying, “Hey, I’m making a game about Mongolia in the 13th century. All I know is Wikipedia, can you can you suggest some resources?”
And this person whom I never met in person, I don’t even know what they’re called—they say they’re a professor of history in China—they reply, “Oh, that’s amazing! Nobody is doing any kind of creative work about this!” And he sends me a list of about 15 different books, not only did he send me the list, he also organized them. He said, “OK, this is how people viewed this in the in the 1980’s, and this is how people viewed this in the 1990s. And here is the most recent literature about this, so you should read these books and you should read them in this order and you should be mindful of that research.”
I went on Amazon and I ordered a whole bunch of books. I started reading them. So that was a starting point. But research is never enough, because as you might have noticed, I am not Mongolian and not only that, I come from Western civilization, which means I have certain biases and preconceptions, which I might not even be aware of.
So I started reaching out to people that might help with that. I knew I wanted the game to have a cinematic trailer and I knew that the character in the trailer is going to be Khutulun who is a bona fide Mongolian princess from that period. And I wanted a Mongolian actress to play the part of Khutulun in the cinematic trailer.
I went to Internet Movie Database and looked for people who played Khutulun in the past and I stumbled upon Bayra Bela, who is a former Miss Mongolia, and a cultural representative for Mongolia for years now, and who played Khutulun in a Mongolian production. I just emailed her and said, “Hey, I’m working on this. Can you help?” And Bela has been super-helpful throughout this project.
One, she knows a lot about Mongolia and Mongolian history. As a former Miss World Mongolia, who has been representing the country she did her homework. And she managed to connect me with other people that are involved in this kind of creation, notably a professor of design in Ulan Bator University in Mongolia, his name is Batbileg. He and Bela have been the major force in designing the Mongola in the game.
At this point we have a design doc about how to draw Mongols as well as: What do they care about? What is important to them? What do they think about? What do people think about them? Bela and Batbileg didn’t write the whole thing, but they contributed a lot of the ideas and the art and they reviewed it. This design document that was greatly influenced by these experts.
Can you give an example of how something from either that document or your work with them has influenced the game, the gameplay, not just the thematic or the flavor of the game?
Oh certainly. One big thing is that Worldbreakers is divided into four different Guilds. They’re very similar to colors in Magic or factions in Netrunner. The Mongol people are aligned with the Earth Guild and in the initial iteration of the game they were all about combat. It was 100% just attack, attack, attack, kill, kill, kill and very influenced by the Western view of the Mongol people as conquerors.
Now, to be clear, the Mongol people were conquerors. They were awesome at it. They were terrifying. The more you read about them, you see how their military technology in the 13th century was equivalent to Europe in the 15th or 16th century. If Genghis Khan would not have died when he did, we would all be Mongols now. They were brilliant at warfare, logistics, communication, everything.
But there’s many other aspects of their culture that are often forgotten or ignored. The big one is that they were migratory people. And if you had spoken to historians in the 1980s, 1990s, even some historians today, they would tell you that migratory people—nomads—cannot run a country or an empire. Which is absurd because they did. It happened in the 13th century.
So this nomadic life is a big part of what Mongols are even to this day, many people in Mongolia are still nomads. And that influenced some of their design in the game.
In particular, they have a whole mechanic called Migrate. Cards with Migrate give you a choice: you can either settle into your current place, or you can migrate someone else somewhere. Like go to greener pastures, sacrifice some of your standing and gain a one-time bonus.
Another part was their communication system, which is called the Yam, and it was a bit like a relay system where if you send the message from point A to point B, one person would ride like 20% of the way, pass the message to someone else, and so on. And that relay system is represented in multiple cards both in the Earth faction and out of it, and it also influenced some of the mechanics of the game.
So I’m just trying to understand. Does each deck represent a nation or a people? And the cards of the deck are members of that nation who have allegiance to a particular faction? Is each people either totally or mainly associated with one faction or can you have multiple factions in a deck?
The deck starts with a Worldbreaker card, which is like an identity in Netrunner. The base game has four different identities. Three of them are based on historical characters, and one of them is fictional. So for example, one of the identities is Khutulun the Mongolian Princess. Another one is Marco Polo.
(And it’s funny. I was talking to Calvin Wong, who is a big board gamer. I showed him the game and he said that he loves how Marco Polo is the token white guy in the game. Which is pretty much true. Over 70% of cards are non-whites and Marco Polo and his people are the token white people.)
Anyway, your deck starts with the Worldbreaker. The Worldbreaker gives you standing with one of the four Guilds. And the preconstructed decks only have cards from this Guild. So if you’re playing Khutulun, you start with Earth standing and you only have Earth cards in your deck. But if you draft or if you play constructed, you can mix and match as you see fit. And while there are some strict alignments, they’re not super-strong.
The Earth Guild is mostly Mongols and the Mongols are mostly Earth Guild, but there are neutral cards who are Mongols and the Earth Guild has a theme of Indian people that practice a particular martial art called kalarippayattu, which was very popular in South India in the 13th century.
Then the game starts in Mongolia, but quickly expands into Persia, so there is a very strong Arabian presence, and they’re spread out. Many of them are in the Void Guild, which is based off a sect of Islam called Nizari Isma’ili, but many of them are also in the Moon Guild, which is fictional. In the base game their Worldbreaker is the Council of Engineers who are a group of women who are building a Utopian society in the in the mountains of Persia.
Now, when you say the game starts here and moves here, what does that mean in in gameplay terms? Is there a board?
There is no board, it’s a pure card game and this goes back to one of the things I like about Magic and Netrunner, and it’s the metagame.
When you sit down to play a game of Worldbreakers you can forget about the story and about the plot, the same way you can when you play a game of Magic or Netrunner. If you don’t care the story, you just play the cards. They have pretty art. They have slick mechanics. It’s an awesome game.
But if you do care about the plot, there’s different ways that you can interact with it, so some of the cards have flavor texts that tell you about the plot, and in particular there’s 16 spotlight cards that are numbered, and if you read them in order, they’re going to tell you the story of what’s going on in Advent of the Khanate.
Also the game is going to be shipped with a Campaign Mode. It’s a one-player solo mode where you’re going to play 10 games of Worldbreakers versus an automata. And throughout those games, you’re going to learn about the plot as well.
Something occurred to me as you were mentioning that there are Persians involved, there are Arabs involved and so there’s questions about representing those cultures—not to mention some potentially touchy issues around politics and religion. How have you dealt with that?
I think that I think that the Middle East, in an alternative timeline, should have become a superpower. I think that the US and the European Union has nothing on the Middle East. It’s the cradle of civilization. Everything we know about the maths and the sciences and astronomy and mechanics. A lot of it comes from that part of the world. The Jews contributed a lot and the Arabs contributed a lot. So I think when you consider just raw brainpower and natural resources. The Middle East has insane potential, it has so much stuff in it.
And yet we managed to ruin the whole thing.
I wish history was different because I honestly believe that place would have been a hegemonic power, and it would have been an extraordinary one.
So one of the things I put into Worldbreakers, the Council of Engineers. They’re called the Muhandasat. They’re a council of Jewish and Muslim women because based on my research, it is entirely possible that in the 13th century these people would work together and they would love each other and they would see that they’re brothers and sisters to each other, and it’s OK if one of them believes in Moses as the last Prophet, and one of them believes in Muhammad as the last Prophet. That’s allowed.
So you created this fictional element which was like: “Be the change that you want to see.”
And at this point it’s important for me to point out that there are no clear moral categories in the game I created. The protagonist is Khutulun the Mongolian Princess. The antagonist is Marco Polo. They both have positive and negative sides to them. Khutulun wants to reunite her people, which is very noble—but the reason she wants to reunite her people is because she wants to go and conquer Europe. Marco Polo stole some artifacts from China from Kublai Khan and he’s running away and everyone is chasing him because of these artifacts–but he also wants to go back to Venice and let his people know that there’s a big Mongol Horde on their way and they’re going to be here very soon.
Likewise, the Monhandesad, the Council of Engineers, they want to build a utopian society (which happens to be closely aligned to my idea of a utopian society). But there’s this resource called Mythium and they want to control it, they don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.
Like, “Only we can solve the problem.”
And they are engineers, so their solution is to develop the technologies that will solve this problem. But there is enough evidence showing that engineers can’t solve political problems, and yet they are trying to solve the political problem.
And that brings us back to your question about the Arab people and how they are represented in the game.
From a high level, there are a lot of different Arab people in the game. Some of them are assassins, because there’s this sect of Islam known as the Order of Assassins in popular culture in the West, and if you played video games such as Assassin’s Creed…
They’re also called hashishin, and this is where the word ‘assassin’ comes from. That is libel, by the way, because Marco Polo claimed that they use hashish/cannabis/marijuana before going on missions, and to the best of my knowledge, the only evidence for that comes from European representation of these people. That’s just historical bullshit.
But that’s where the word comes from, so some of them are assassins and they’re portrayed as assassins. They have knives, and they kill people.
But there’s also a lot of other Arab people represented in the game. So within the Order of Assassins, their leader Ruknuddin Kurshah. He’s based on a historical character from our timeline, who was captured and executed by the Mongols. But in the history of Worldbreakers, he’s using Mythium to rally his people and stop that fate.
The Number Two in the power structure, her name is just The Right Hand and she is terrifying. She’s one of the most scary people in the Nizari Isma’ili power structure. She’s the accountant and in her illustration you see her sitting in a table with an abacus and some papers and a bunch of souvenirs from Nizari conquests because she never fights anyone herself. She is just a brilliant economist and bureaucrat, and her power is to make everyone’s assassinations more efficient just because she knows how to play with the funds.
And that theme continues with many of the other Arab characters. Many of them are scholars. Many of them are merchants. Many members of The Muhandasat are Persian and Arab and they are teachers, they are researchers, they are astronomers, they are inventors.
So while there are some representations of the stereotypical ‘Arab’—as an assassin—there are many others that reflect aspects of their culture like: they invented currency and they invented trade as we know it.
I can see how you’ve tried to reflect the heterogeneity of Arab culture even as, you know, included things that could be called stereotypical. Hopefully people won’t focus on those and ignore the all the other stuff you did, but you know we’re talking about the Internet, so I don’t know.
One of the things I want to emphasize in Worldbreakers and I’m still working on how to do that, because it’s really hard, is that the Order of Assassins were not terrorists. They had nothing to do with terror. Terror, by definition, is about instilling fear in the population.
That they were assassins, yes, but they targeted very carefully, they were very surgical about it. They targeted those people in the opponents’ power structure that were most dangerous or detrimental to themselves. Their instinct was not conquest. Their instinct was survival because they were a small population. They were persecuted.
And these are things that I can emphasize with as someone who was raised on Jewish history and their way to deal with it was to develop this technology of assassinating military leaders and political figures that were trying to rally.
I think that for this section of the plot. There is still conversation to be had, whether it’s ethical or not. I think it’s an important conversation. Were the Order of Assassins employing ethical means for the type of warfare that they’re waging?
I’m going to say yes. I think it was war. I don’t think they were terrorists. I think they were very noble about it. And I think they had the right mix of practical and ethical. And I’m trying to convey this through the art.
In particular, there is one piece of art of an assassination. And it’s established in the story that the person who’s being assassinated was the architect of a very dangerous and deadly and painful ruse that hurt a lot of different people. And that killing him in the context of the story was justified. Which is problematic in many different ways, but that’s the story I’m telling.
So I’m trying to figure out how to land this plane, because there’s been so much stuff here. It’s been amazing talking to you and listening to all this. It now definitely makes me intrigued about this project. So let me just ask, in terms of the design of the game, the balance and so on and so forth, are you done?
I’m going to do something super weird. I’m going to have a Kickstarter campaign on March 1st. (Go and pledge everyone.) And I’m going to come to my Kickstarter campaign with a finished product.
The game is done. The rules are done. The cards are, let’s say 85% playtested and I’m going to playtest until the last second, because you can never playtest enough. Notably, the art is done. 112 illustrations, all of them digitally drawn by 14 different artists. They’re going to be done by the time the campaign launches.
Plus, the game is on Tabletop Simulator and Tabletopia right now, so you don’t have to back blindly. You can play the whole game. This is not a subsection. This is not a demo. This is not a tutorial. It’s the entire game. All the game modes, all the art. Everything is going to be online.
And do you envisage, assuming the campaign is successful, do you hope to continue this on with expansions, and if so, what are your hopes for this project after this campaign?
My initial hope is to have people play the game. Buy the game and play the game. I’ve tried to pack as much replayability into this box and I’m thinking of it as a standalone board game that people can open and play again and again and again and again. There’s about 200 hours of gameplay.
The box will have four preconstructed decks. That’s six different matchups. Every matchup plays differently, so it’s six different ways to play the game. The box is going to have constructed rules, so if you want to build your own decks, there’s enough cards for two players. To build their decks. There will also be rules for draft, so if you don’t want to build decks, you just shuffle all the cards together, you draft your decks and you play versus your friend.
And the box is going to have the solo campaign. I’m thinking of it as a singular product.
That being said, if the game succeeds, and if I see that it’s gaining traction and there’s popularity out there. The design document already has material for three extensions in it. The storyline is already fleshed out for two years and I have a five-year plan for where the game could go, including organized play. It’s all about the success of the game.
For example, when it comes to playtesting, one of the things I’ve been doing with the base game–and I hope to continue doing this—is to have no secrecy. I don’t believe in secrecy as a marketing strategy. It’s not working for Magic in my opinion. It didn’t work for Fantasy Flight, I just don’t think it works. Just speaking to people in the industry. The percentage of players that follow spoiler season is tiny. They are a fraction of the general population. The way most people are exposed to a new product is by buying it for the first time.
So for me, as soon as the expansion set is designed I’m just going to put it out there and people can play it and people can give me feedback and that’s how we’re going to playtest. No secrets, no NDA is none of that nonsense.
I mean, even if I do put everything online, most of the players are never going to hear about it, it’s totally fine to have a devoted core of, let’s say, 1% of players, they’re just tapped into the stream of information and they’re not going to get surprised when the expansion comes out, but they don’t want to be surprised, they just want to be up-to-date.
Well, nothing remains but for me to wish you all the best with the Worldbreakers campaign.
Thank you for talking with me!
Worldbreakers is coming to Kickstarter on March 1.