Over the weekend I was hanging out with my long-time fave Australian Matt (who we should all congratulate for being amazingly clever and getting a job in Leeds doing interesting things with games) at LudoLunch: the first ever game developer family-friendly picnic game-jam and mini-conference meet-up in Oxford – which turned out to be as amazing as it sounded.

The set up for the day – in an open field with no powerpoints in sight – meant that us development folk had to put down our digital entities for a day and soak in the sun, engage in discussion and create through the analogue.

Part 1: Interactive Fiction Workshop

The first session was run by one of my inspirations for all things narrative, historic and interactive based – Em Short, of Galatea, First Draft of the Revolution and Inform7 fame (to name but a few of her many admirable achievements). Her session took the form of a prototype-jam in which she dealt out 26 story cards, 19 constraints and 7 secret aims to the various groups and set us loose for 45 minutes to write an overview for our game, a detailing of how our core mechanic would operate and an example of it in action with bonus points for more fully considered logic trees (a detailed list of the cards can be found HERE).

@purplesteve's story and constraint cards - hilarity ensued.

@purplesteve’s story and constraint cards – hilarity ensued.

Trying to be creative between a rock and a hard place was difficult to start with – but in the end it facilitated approaching and engaging with subjects through systems and pathways which otherwise would not be the first port of call – especially interesting was how the mechanic constraint operated, really demonstrating the power of games to alter the parameters for how we see, engage and navigate the world spaces we want to create (somthing which Dr. Graham has talked about with regards to his experiments of using IF for subverting Roman spaces HERE). It was incredibly challenging but in all the right ways.

My personal favourite from this exercise was the group who received the premise from Lifeline and the constraint of your only choices being the ability to remove letters from words. They envisaged a god-mode style of game where you were able to manipulate your environment by removing the letters which created the entity to create other items. Stuck inside an airlock with dwindling supplies you systematically had to remove letters to provide you with the resources to survive – chairs were deconstructed to provide more __air_ and keyboards dematerialised to provide a key_____ for you to escape and so on. Brilliant stuff. The rest of the game ideas were equally engrossing and the crowd had great fun voting for various options and providing feedback – all in all it was an incredibly valuable and enjoyable experience.

I was so enamoured by this way of engaging with different ideas, different ways of looking at systems and pathways through playing with and constraining mechanics and goals that I have started work on an archaeology specific set of cards – so stay tuned for that! Could possibly make a great game to play at another #archaeogaming unconferece as a way to get people creating and thinking with mechanics, narrative and choices… or perhaps as a thing to use at a heritage and play session as a way to inspire and subvert creative workflows for archaeological topics.

Part 2: Mini Conference

Talks and Other Bits:

The first of the micro-talks was delivered by Lucie  – a multilingual, multitalented localization and management specialist for games. The session was incredibly captivating and eye opening – even though my own games are tiny proof of concepts and thus are never going to require localization. The nuances of how to both structurally and semantically handle changes in languages was something which I had not really thought about before and the process which Lucie outlined was a far cry to how I had imagined the process occurring.

The second micro-talk was by Mila Irek  who discussed her PhD research into how race and class have, are and could be managed through games – it is a rare thing to see academics and developers talking alongside each other and Mila (who now works at a studio writing quests) talked at length about how she managed to effectively conduct her research and in turn how she embedded it back into the industry through practice. The roundtable (or rather, round-picnic blanket) discussion at the conclusion of her talk was really heartening as well – lots of great recursion between those working on technical aspects and discussion on how her research could be handled at all stages of game development.

Third of the micro-talks was Dr. Esther MacCallum-Stewart  to share her research on love, romance, sex and sexuality in games. During her talk she provided a plethora of both hilarious and serious anecdotes and discussed how these topics are and could be treated with games. Again the potential to afford different experiences was stressed as well as the necessity of pacing, choice and consent. As with Mila’s talk much of the value was garnered from the round-picnic discussion session where elements pertaining to narrative, aesthetic and mechanic were all discussed with reference to the various interests of the diverse group professionally engaged in making games. Such interfacing between industry and academics is something that I had previously identified during my MSc as being highly problematic – but the atmosphere and approach taken at LudoLunch allowed for theoretical and practical discussions to occur in productive and though provoking ways – fingers crossed that #archaeogaming and #historygaming might feature in a similar way in future picnic events!

The final micro-talk was by Nia Wearn on the untapped market for games of pregnant women who are forced to wait around at hospitals for appointments. She even bought her adorable bub dressed in a batman outfit for good measure.


Part 3: GameJam

We finished up the day with a mini-game jam (of the analogue variety) with the themes of “deception”, “Oxford” and “picnics”.

Our group – consisting of myself, Matt from Australia and Richard – came up with the idea of a board game whereby each player was in control of a super secret spy faction, attempting to infiltrate the Oxford festival of picnicing to deceptively steal food and secrets from the opposing spy agencies. We even had a flag and some sweet programmer art drawn up.


The basic set up of the game was that there were 4 picnic tables, with 6 availiable slots. Each of the players starts with 3 points and 4 spy minions. At the begining of the game each player took it in turns to direct their spy minions to one or more of the tables. Each of the tables had 6 pieces of food on it (represented by a D6). Each turn you could decide whether to eat at a table (gain 1 point per spy sitting at the table) or try to overhear intelligence from other spies sitting at your table (roll a d6 against the player – if your roll is higher you overhear a secret, if your roll is lower the noise of chewing disrupts your ability to hear the secrets. If successful you steal a point for each player that the opposing spy master has at the table).

Once the food has been depleted from the table (the counter reaches 0) you can no longer eat or try to steal secrets – the idea here being that its not hugely subtle or spy like or deceptive to just sit at the table when there is no more food to necessitate your being there. Once all the food is depleted from all the tables the picnic festival is over and the spies go home to tally up how many secrets they spilled and how much food they ate.

The game was a great deal of fun – and one of the highlights was watching the emergent role-playing and discussion from the groups who got to playtest with us – *OM NOM NOM CHICKEN? THAT SOUNDS AN AWFUL LOT THE NUCLEAR LAUNCH CODES*. As well as the strategies which unfolded – did you play it safe with gaurenteed points through food? Did you make enemies by stealing secrets? Did you place all your minions at one table and risk being overheard more? Or try spread across all 4 and have ineffective eating rates?

spys in the park1

The premise (spies, oxford, picnicing) might not be the recipe for a best seller, but with some tweaking the mechanics which underlay it might well be something quite fun. I have since prototyped up a small version in TableTopSimulator and will do a more detailed set of rules and refinements in the near future.

spys in the park2


Part 4: Conclusions

LudoLunch was well worth the 5am start and 3 hours of trains. It was relaxed, engaging, family friendly and challenging in all the right ways. I look forward to the next installment with great anticipation!

Huge thank-you to Simon Roth and the rest of the crew who made the day possible!