I was very excited to see The New Science from Conquistador Games on Kickstarter. Not only does it look like a really cool game, it is also a neat model of the history of the scientific revolution. One of the creators, Dirk Knemeyer, was kind enough to sit down with me to chat about the project.
Trevor: Could you briefly explain the concept of the game and the historical period it is intended to represent?
Dirk:The New Science models the high-level flow of how the core scientific revolution progressed. As with all of my designs, I am most interested in the human aspect of things. So, the game has five scientists from the period each with unique ratings and characteristics that intend to serve as a snapshot of what made them unique and interesting. You control one of them and are essentially racing toward new discoveries in five fields of science: Mathematics, Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Those were the “big five” of the period. In order to advance up the discovery tree you must first research, then experiment, on a discovery. At this point you have a choice. You may hoard your knowledge and try to move higher up the tree. Or you can choose to publish in order to receive prestige. Therein lies the essential tension of the game: if you hoard the knowledge you can advance farther than your opponents. But the winner is the player with the most prestige, which you primarily get from publishing. So should you publish for the glory, or succumb to your thirst to be farther ahead of your opponents? Once you publish, everyone reads your book and any advantage you had is lost.
Trevor: Could you tell us a bit about the details of how the game models science in the period? I am particularly curious to hear how you think the specifics of the context (Europe during the scientific revolution) creates a game that would be different if it was in a different historical context?
Dirk: I’m trying to tell a story. Players can really get sort of an executive summary of 75 years of science, during the most important period in scientific history. Like, we learn about calculus in school, and we know it is hard and advanced. But few regular folk know it came in the 1670’s, much less the incredible controversy over its discovery. The discovery tree is trying to show people where some of these things we take for granted came from, and introduce them to some of the more obscure or complementary aspects that built forward.
The other part of the story is the scientists themselves. Most people know who Newton and Galileo are. But they don’t know how they were different or unique; just that they both belong in the same bucket of scientific geniuses from a long time ago. I’m trying to show, thru game mechanics and ratings, “This is how they were different.” Then too is introducing people lost to history. I took easily 50 hours of history classes in university but, until researching my previous game, Road to Enlightenment, had never heard of Athanasius Kircher. I would argue he was more important to science and culture in the 17th century than any of the other guys portrayed in the game. The problem is, he was not rigorous and published many things that were, more often than not, wrong. However, his diversity of interests and celebrity-like status made him a giant of his century. History just quickly forgot about him. I want people to learn about him.
Trevor: If you were going to demo this game for historians, what kinds of things do you think they would be excited about? Knowing that they are not at all your target audience, do you think there are any elements in the games design they might be particularly interested in?
Dirk: I hope that historians are tickled to see that I care about these people and things, that I’m driven to create stories and systems around these somewhat arcane topics to remember and contextualize them in a greater narrative arc. I really care about and enjoy these things and am attempting to honour them.
Now, all of that said, I’m scared of historians. Ultimately I am a big picture, holistic and systemic thinker. I work very hard to get details right but it is where I am weakest. So my fear is historians see my work and get pre-occupied with things they disagree with. And that could either be because I made errors, or because as a game designer I chose expediency and playability over granularity and particularity. But I am sort of perennially insecure about muffing the details.
I honestly don’t know what historians would most enjoy about the game. Thinking about myself, as a person who loves history, I would love the rated scientists. And the Happening cards, because they both throw into the mix a whole bunch of historical context and make the game more untidy and unexpected. Because that is what real life was like. A lot of gamers are used to very controlled and measured outcomes, where they can count on “if I do x then y will happen”. That is certainly not how being an experimental scientist ever is, much less in the 17th century.
Trevor: You call the game a “worker placement” game. For readers who don’t have much background on that kind of game could you tell us a bit about the term. From there, it would be great to hear a bit about why you think a worker placement style game works well for representing advances in science?
Dirk: “Worker placement” means you have markers that you can place on different spots on the board which enable you some benefit for doing so. It is a fairly straightforward and fast-playing game mechanic that hobby gamers know and are comfortable with. It allows you to know what your finite resources to use are, look at a variety of options for those resources, then essentially “race” other players to the best ones. I place one, you place one. Only one person can occupy each option, so the order of operations is critically important. Which option do I think you are least likely to go for? Or, which option do I absolutely have to get? You make a lot of those kind of decisions.
I am a thematic game designer. That means, I pick a story that I want to tell and then try to create systems and mechanics that best tell that story. When I first had the idea for this game it popped into my head as a worker placement game, and in fact the final game is remarkably similar to my original “a-ha!” But that was pure gut. What I actually did after that was frame the problem to myself, “What is the most experientially rich way I can put my players into this theme and these characters to experience what being a 17th century scientist would have been like?” That’s always hard, because it very quickly deprecates to “OK, so the instruments were crucially important so maybe there are physical instruments that make the difference.” It’s a rabbit hole, I essentially had people being the equivalent of junior scientists with a mini-lab kit that they would be dealing with. That was fraught with problems, ranging from not being fun for most, to incredibly expensive to produce. So from there it was just deprecate and deprecate and deprecate. And I found myself back at worker placement.
Why I think it works is that, ultimately, the rate limiting factor for these scientists was time. Their progress was absolutely constrained by the hours they had in a day. So having players face that same scarcity of time just made sense. There are some other reasons related to earlier designs as well, having to do with issues of scarcity, that have largely been washed out of the final design. My earlier prototypes were much more literal representations of the choices and complexity that these men had to deal with. But it caused analysis-paralysis in players and it ran long. I wanted a 60 minute game, 120 minutes at the outside, once people knew what they were doing. That required watering things down down what we have now. While the lover of history in me aches, the game designer is sanguine about how much better the game is for those trade-offs. Some of the early tests that took four, five hours were brutal. But, playtesters still liked the game. The kernel was right. It just needed to be articulated in a way that is easier to digest.
Trevor: How did you decide what attributes to give to the different playable scientists? To what extent do you think these attributes have to do with this being about characteristics of the scientists themselves, of the contexts in which they did their work, or just what made for better game balance?
Dirk: For me the most important thing is being true and authentic to who these richly interesting people were. If the game isn’t telling us an approximately accurate story about these people then I consider it a failure. There was nothing I took more seriously.
Early versions of the game had even more differentiated scientists. But as I mentioned before, it played too slow. I think it worked really well for experienced players who loved the theme, but it would just turn off too many people for how slow it caused a variety of those players to play it. Capitalism man, I hate it! If I ever win the lottery I’m going to design games like this for micro audiences. Like, you mentioned above that historians weren’t the primary audience. You’re right, but that is only because I need to sell 3,000 boxes of this thing and funded its production from my personal savings account. Given my druthers I would design something far more arcane that was carefully crafted to only appeal to a very small number of people but just absolutely turned them on.
Trevor: Can you tell us a bit about the tech tree? How did you decide on which sciences would be in the game and how they would stack together?
Dirk: I did some initial high level research about the different branches of science during this period and fleshed them out just a little. Then I had Troy Goodfellow go off and research what he thought were the key advances in all of those fields and how the progressed over time. He did a really nice job with this. Then I took his work, validated it, and began crafting it toward a structure that would work well in the game. He gave some more pointers in the early going but at some point it just became a system balancing thing. And, again, the final tech tree is significantly simplified. It has 5 levels of depth instead of 7 and dropped, gosh, maybe ⅓ of the total discoveries. Ultimately the progress from one “tech” to another is representational not literal. So the idea is, the ideas around probability theory made tangents & inverses possible but there is not a straight line in real life between them, quite.
Trevor: I find the term procedural rhetoric (PDF) to be a really useful term for thinking about how the models and processes in games make arguments. What arguments do you think the rules and model of the game makes about the scientific revolution?
Dirk: The game argues that people make history. It acquaints people with the building blocks of science, a field of human endeavour that, I would argue, has replaced the Catholic Church as the modern repressor of humanity. Note the game is not in any way trying to make that claim! The game is arguing against the 95% of game designs out there with entirely symmetrical playing positions that I think are boring and add nothing to the human condition by failing to tell a nuanced story. The game is arguing that the world gets in the way: you can’t just work in your laboratory. You’ve got to kiss the king’s ass. You’ve got to kiss the pope’s ring. You’ve got to yuck it up with other professional colleagues you might neither like or respect. All of that human interaction stuff is essential to the highest levels of achievement, and the game makes that very clear.
Trevor: I’ve written before about some of the discussions between folks that mod Civilization’s Tech tree. I think it is a really interesting way to work through models of how the history, philosophy and sociology of science work. I would be curious to hear about any ideas you had for different ways the game could have worked that you tossed out. I would also be curious to hear a bit about how working on the game has refined or changed your own ideas about how science functions in society.
Dirk: In terms of the tech tree, the final game is almost identical to the original. There are many fewer techs. It is easier to move up the tree. But the scale has always been late 16th century to the mid-to-late 17th century. Because my interest is primarily in telling stories at a human scale as opposed to the paradigmatic, I really wasn’t intending the tech tree to tell more of a story than to gently educate people on how the early years of some of these fields progressed. Yes, sure, in the five branches I chose, in the inter-relationships between the trees, and particularly in Astronomy vanishing into Physics post-Reflecting Telescope, I’m trying to illustrate how this particular bend in the river flowed. But I was not trying to make a larger statement about science and discovery, beyond what I’ve mentioned already.
Working on this game really hasn’t changed my thinking on science at all. It was just intellectual curiosity on the topic which, for me, whenever I am curious about something I want to turn it into an essay or a game. I certainly learned a lot of granular specifics I did not know, but I came into this game seeing science as an oppressive cultural force and left it feeling the same thing. It is just the ebb and flow of history, and this period was the crucial century to shifting us from treating hierarchical systems based on the mystical and spiritual as our species’ guiding light to treating the scientific method and the inherently inhumane byproducts that flow out of is as our species’ guiding light. I remain hopeful that our next shift will be toward the psychological and sociological but am not holding my breath.
Trevor: This has been really fantastic. Thank you for taking time to talk through the project and the design with me. I know there are a range of historians and gamers that follow the blog and I hope that they can 1) chime in with more questions and discussion for you about the game and 2) that they go chip in on the Kickstarter for this. Once the game is out, I look forward to playing it and sharing some reactions to it here on Play the Past.