Week 7 ~ BEAN CONSCIOUS: a card game about choosing food that won’t wreck the planet

This is Episode 7/10 of the Hacking 10 games in 10 weeks project.

What was the most popular boardgame in pre-colonial America? Patolli.

When this game was played, such a crowd of onlookers and gamblers came that the players were pressed against each other, some waiting to play and others to bet.
Diego Durán in The History of the Indies of New Spain
Two people bickering over Patolli, from the Florentine Codex

What is this game really about?

At first, Patolli seems rather uninspiring. You race six pieces around an X-shaped board, trying to get them all to the finishing tile before the other player. Chance decides how many steps you can move, and your only choice is deciding which piece to move. There is no capturing of pieces, no jumping over them, nor can they be upgraded. You can temporarily block other pieces, since one cannot land on an occupied tile.

So how did this dull roll&move game turn into an irresistible activity for the Aztecs and their subjects? It was the meta-game. Players would enter each contest with an agreed number of items. Each time a piece completed a circuit around the board, the opponent was forced to hand over one of their items. Also, if a player couldn’t move any of their pieces, then they had to put one item into a pot, which the game winner would scoop up at the end. Players would wager anything from food to precious stones, and sometimes raised the stakes so high that they would gamble themselves into servitude ⛓️

Gambling is still a huge social problem, often enabled by deliberate design choices, as Natasha Dow Schüll documents in Addiction by Design. I will delve into it in another story. My challenge for this story is to make Patolli interesting without gambling.

What will the hacked game be about?

The creative spark came from the very word patolli, which means bean. This is because players would toss dried beans to determine the movement of pieces. Each bean had one side marked (+1 step on the board if the bean landed on this side) and one side blank (no step).

My first notes on hacking Patolli (with digital yellow background)

I want players to rely less on chance and more on choices. In particular, uneasy choices that question their ethics in real life, and provoke what I call Minimum Playable Dilemmas.

There will be no beans in the hacked Patolli, but it will still revolve around food. It will let you explore the impact of your everyday food choices on other people and the living planet (whilst trying not to be preachy about my favourite diet).

How can I hack Patolli so that it’s about food choices?

It will be a cooperative game.

2+ players share a hand of food cards, which they pick in order to move forward on a Patolli-inspired track of land cards.

Your goal is getting everyone around the track. But the land track will be progressively eroded, depending on your food choices. Landing on an empty spot means game over and lost, for everyone. Food cards will have different impacts on the land. For instance, a beef card will force you to remove one or more water cards from the track, while an organic carrot card will let you just move forward one or two steps.

I want to design a growing tension between putting out fires (as Peter Hayward put it in this insightful episode of Board Game Design Lab) and trying to achieve the long-term goal. From the beginning of the game, players should face non-trivial choices between achieving a positive result and avoiding a negative consequence.

Cards are a super interesting medium. Each card you design for a deck can be unique in its combination of risk(s) and reward(s), and it’s really quick to tweak these values while prototyping and playtesting. You can control the degree of randomness in your game by increasing or decreasing the cards players can choose from. And you can use cards as building blocks for an ever-changing board.

Anyway, so far I have taken a mechanics-first approach: laying the foundations for the game engine before I flesh out the details of each card. That will be the next phase, once I have playtested the abstract version a few times. Then I’ll dig into research about food production, food consumption, and their impact on people and the living planet.

Thanks for reading so far! Comments, feedback and suggestions make me a very happy bean ;)

If you are interested in playtesting this game, email me m@tteo.me and I’ll send you a print&play!
If you’d like to make a game but have no idea where to start, check out this tutorial: how to make your first game in less than 2 hours (11 minutes read, apparently).