Backburner Month 18: Yan Tan Tethera, or Those Who Return

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 map-drawing game about a village.

That is to say: it's a game for several players where you begin with a near-blank map. Over time, you take turns, where each turn involves developing the story of the place, filling in details, deciding on events that move the place forward. The place in particular is a rural village being rebuilt by a small community, and the game is otherwise neutral with respect to setting: maybe it's a little ancient village in the desert, or maybe it's a village in the snows of another planet in the far future, or maybe something else entirely!

There are many of these kinds of games now—something which I'll discuss in a bit—but the specific thing I want to do with Yan Tan Tethera is build a tiny, manageable-but-still-important resource economy into the game. Actions in the game will have two aspects: they move the story forward narratively but they also spend and gain resources, and losing too many resources will damage the village. I'm still torn on whether it's possible to straight-up lose, but I'm not taking it off the table. If losing is possible, then it should be unusual and difficult, but one reason I'm still open to losing is because it gives some weight and some bite to the resource economy.

Each player's turn is composed of two halves: one that's a random event, one that's an explicit action by the player. Random events might be windfalls, they might be problems, or they might be simply new things that add detail and color to the world. Actions can involve constructing buildings, making tools or resources, undertaking projects or journeys… they're somewhat free-form in terms of their effect on the story, but their effects are specified and play into the resource economy, helping you gather resources. And they can fail! There's an element of randomness, and players can help reinforce projects if they're important, but the randomness means that things might simply not go the way you want. Your village is growing, but it should regularly feel like it's growing against the odds.

Why write it? You've might have noticed that this description is heavily, heavily indebted to another game: Avery Alder's The Quiet Year, a game that I cannot understate my love for. The Quiet Year is a vaguely post-apocalyptic game, in that it specifies that the focus is a place being rebuilt after some kind of terrible catastrophe, but it's not well-specified what the apocalypse was or, indeed, any of the setting details. In the game, you draw cards to find out an event, and then you have various actions you can take.

I love The Quiet Year, but I'll also admit that I've had some weirdly directionless games of it in the past. A big part of it is that the game asks a lot of players. If the players are in the right mindset and have the right experience with improvisation, it can be supremely rewarding, because a player really has carte blanche to do just about anything they want. For example, they can start projects, which can be anything, and they can take about any amount of time and have any effects! They can discover anything! It's supremely flexible, but I've played games with players who have really struggled when given a full blank page. I distinctly remember one game of The Quiet Year where a friend of mine drew a card that told them to make up a second project, and they immediately became upset, because they were struggling to imagine up just one project, and now they had to imagine two.

So what I want is a game which tries to facilitate some of the tone and style of The Quiet Year but builds in a bit more restriction, which on one hand will limit the possibilities of the game, but on the other hand will provide more guidance and affordances to players. The biggest thing is that, instead of projects being free-form, I want projects to address specific resource problems and use specific resources, so that a player should never arrive at their turn and be unsure of what to do: there are problems, and they should be solving them! In this, it ends up borrowing from some of the other map-drawing games I've played, like Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos' Ex Novo and Everest Pipkin's The Ground Itself but also from more resource-management-focused games like Cecil Howe's Do Not Let Us Die In The Cold Night Of This Dark Winder. (Perhaps surprisingly, another game that's on my mind as an inspiration here is Matt Leacock's collaborative board game Pandemic, which is another resource-management board game in which you constantly feel like you're on the razor's edge!)

I also should be clear that this project is not a criticism of The Quiet Year. I'm not trying to “fix” it in any way, and I still love it dearly and encourage people to play it! It's especially worth noting that the game I'm describing here, in trying to address one specific design point, loses out on so much of what makes The Quiet Year such an effective and poignant game: in particular, you'll notice that I've glossed over the mechanics around community dynamics which make up such a central part of The Quiet Year, and that's because I legitimately am not sure how to build the game I want to build while preserving those. I'm playing around in the design space, but making something which tackles the issues I want to tackle ends up being a very different kind of game.

Why the name? The original name was Those Who Return, and it was part of a conscious (if somewhat lazy) attempt to avoid imbuing the game with difficult-to-avoid imperialist themes by reinforcing the idea that the protagonists of the game are native to the region and consequently not engaging in imperialism. In retrospect, I believe this was very naïve: after all, there' no shortage of imperialist projects—including ongoing ones—that use the idea of an “ancestral homeland” as an excuse to violently evict current inhabitants. It's an effort, but it's by no means sufficient.

The newer name, Yan Tan Tethera, comes from a system of sheep-counting in the northern parts of England: those three words specifically are the numbers “one, two, three” in the variation used in Lincolnshire. Many areas in Northern England once used a separate set of number words which were used by shepherds for counting sheep: these words were originally descended from the Celtic languages once spoken in those areas. There are some wildly different variants, as well, although it's pretty apparent that they all share a common root! I liked this name because it emphasized a kind of historical and agrarian tone to the game.

#backburner #tabletop