Backburner Month 08: The Last Alliance of Men and Elves

This is an entry from a list of projects I hope to some day finish. Return to the backburnered projects index.

What is it? A “tabletop” game designed to be played asynchronously and slowly.

The premise is this: as a player, your focus is on a single military unit in a vast and probably doomed war. Within that unit, you have a secondary even smaller focus: a single person, perhaps a soldier, perhaps a medic, perhaps a strategist, perhaps a random civilian who happened to tag along. As you play, you sometimes make decisions for the military unit: where to move, whether to retreat, when to find supplies, when to tough it out. You also make decisions and tell stories from the point of view of your focus: as the unit toughs it out, how does the focus feel about it?

Each player in a game of The Last Alliance of Men and Elves has their own distinct military unit and their own focus character within it, and as the game progresses, the unit-level actions affect one another, helping to shape the trajectory of the overall war before the final showdown.

There's a catch, though, that distinguishes it from many other tabletop games: it's designed to be played slowly, asynchronously, over a chat system like Discord. The intention is that each player would take only one turn every day or so—maybe more or maybe less, depending on the group's desire for the cadence of the game—and there's no specific requirement that players take turns in order.

One design goal was for this to be playable by people with busy lives who are rarely able to get to one place—physical or otherwise—to play tabletop games together. People whose schedules differ wildly could still contribute to a game of Last Alliance. This enforced a lot of interesting consequences to the design. I also planned to write a Discord bot to help facilitate games, a bot which could help remember details (e.g. current amounts of resources) and also do prompting (e.g. telling you when you last checked in and suggesting that you take another turn.)

Why write it? I've actually talked about this one before in more depth!. The COVID-19 pandemic definitely brought it into focus as an interesting idea, and if I were good at prioritizing projects I would have completed it in early 2020 so we could playtest it throughout the early days of the pandemic. That said, it predated the pandemic by quite a while: the post linked to is from January 2020, and I had been considering some of the related ideas back in 2019 even.

I think the ideas are interesting! I like the idea of asychronous play in general, even in video games, and I think several of the ideas pitched by Ian Bogost in his 2004 paper Asynchronous Multiplay are still compelling even when they have been implemented in the most heinous possible way by games like Farmville. One design goal of The Last Alliance of Men and Elves was to backport ideas from asynchronous multiplay in a video game context into a tabletop context, faciliated by chat systems.

I also just want to see what it's like to play this kind of game! I like the idea of playing a game I check in on every day or so, where the game itself is built around that level of interaction.

On a side-note, I also want to mention that the fantasy writing system I created here was originally intended as a way of creating interesting-looking backgrounds and design details for a draft of this game.

Why the name? The default milieu was intended to be loosely inspired by both stories from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion as well as Glen Cook's The Black Company, and so the name was taken from Tolkien's narration. It was very much a working title, but I do like long and elaborate names for games and fiction, so I'll probably try to come up with a similar but more distinctive title whenever I return to the project.

#backburner