How do you design a game about urban resilience?

In conversation with Claudia Tomateo, the designer of Ekos, the Urban Systems Lab’s new board game

Learn more about Ekos and how to play here

Zef Egan
Could you tell me a little bit about the beginning of Ekos?

Claudia Tomateo
About two years ago, just before the pandemic started, members of the Urban Systems Lab team —Ryann Abunuwara, Chris Kennedy, Timon McPhearson and I— came up with this idea of creating a game. We brainstormed for a couple of weeks in person, and the rest of the process was through zoom. In the beginning the workflow was just sending drawings back and forth. We knew that the focus of the game would be creating systems. Originally each system was a different shape. Over time we simplified things. We chose to use just one shape, the hexagon, and three types of resources, no more. Now looking back, I think it helps to introduce more complex ideas with simpler shapes. For instance, thinking about infrastructure that can hold different uses, or it can perform in different ways, not only technologically, but also ecologically and socially.

The game is about creating social, ecological and technological systems, as a way to understand the city, like lenses to look through. These systems can intersect, and complexity arises. A lot of people like finding these patterns of systems on the board. While you’re waiting for your turn, you look for where you can build systems. Through the event cards, you get points and the adaptation cards. You don’t need to explain all the possibilities right at the beginning. Just read the event card, and that introduces things more smoothly.

Zef Egan
It also creates this dynamic around urban change. Adaptations come through responding to real time problems, and sometimes that leads to adaptations, sometimes it leads to conflict. This lends narrative arc to the game, and also models some ways that systems develop in cities.

Claudia Tomateo
You can play with up to six people. It gets more challenging. But it also gives you more opportunities to create systems. For example, three people can create a system together. Or if each person has one chip in the system, then the six of you can own a system.

Zef Egan
I love the collaborative part of the game. You can have good faith and bad faith collaborations. And you need to learn to collaborate to do well. It’s a social game and involves social dynamics. And it’s very open in that way.

Claudia Tomateo
While designing the game with Ryann Abunuwara, the social dynamics were interesting. Ryann would send me some drawings, I would redraw them, or reformat them, and email her pieces in letter page size so she could print them at home. Ryann would cut the pieces out with scissors and try every little variation with her family. So we just had this graphic exchange between each other during quarantine.

Ryann was quarantined with her family and would play the variations to the game and we would keep revising Ekos until we came to a sweet spot. For example, we didn’t want to encourage expansion. But we also didn’t want to restrict space. So there’s this balance, you know. We knew that we wanted an organic looking hexagonal board. But then we added more complexities like the land cover which influences the game play through event cards.

Chris Kennedy, Luis Ortiz, and Pablo Herreros Cantis play Ekos

Zef Egan
You could imagine a range of spin offs. Playing a smaller or bigger board version. You can imagine different kinds of events that play out in different historical periods, or with greater severity as climate change accelerates.

Claudia Tomateo
That was a back and forth conversation as well: How specific we wanted to make the board versus how abstract we wanted to make the board. And to be honest, I was pushing more for the abstract, at least for the first version of Ekos, I wanted it to be more abstract. But looking forward, it’s actually part of our future plans to have a New York version, or you know, could be city specific, or it could be geographically specific, for example, the Andes.

As a designer that really excites me. I have this secret idea in my mind. Like I want people to start imagining places with this abstract board, but I don’t say it. And then people start doing it!

You know how on the board part of the coastline is isolated. I was playing with this group of people that began calling those hexagons, the Hamptons. They were ready to name it. That was very funny. And also you could totally see that being the Hamptons.

Zef Egan
I’ve heard that Timon’s kids keep beating him because they are so good at collaborating.

Claudia Tomateo
Timon said that they got it pretty quickly that they needed to collaborate. When I play with adults, I have to stress the idea that, by the way, if you don’t collaborate, you are not going to win. But Timon said that his kids right away got it.

During the pandemic, we sent about 15 game sets to different people who were part of the labs network. They did have a lot of questions which helped us refine the instructions. We also made some short instructional videos. It was also interesting to see how some people make their own mini rules, and their own decisions.

Chris Kennedy, Luis Ortiz, and Pablo Herreros Cantis play Ekos

Zef Egan
I did that all the time. Every time I played a game, I would just start making up rules.

Claudia Tomateo
We introduced a diversity of events and adaptations. For example, Ekos has an indigenous knowledge event cards. It’s a possibility in the game to use indigenous knowledge to plan a city. I hope that is thought provoking. For kids playing in a classroom, perhaps the ideas in the game spur a conversation.

Zef Egan
What is the application of the game for classrooms of multiple ages?

Claudia Tomateo
Looking forward we also want to include the instruction model curriculums for classes. I think, actually, after we played with Jiray and Ryan, many really great ideas came about how to use Ekos as a teaching tool. I love the idea that while you are playing you follow your instincts, you’re discovering how to play this game, you make decisions, you build systems. But then the conceptual idea of stepping back and looking at what you have done as a group.

Naturally, we do that when we finish games. I look here and there. But just to be conscious about it. I think that can open up many conversations. And there’s so many layers to that, because there is the board itself. But then there are the systems. What is the proportion of technological or social systems? Or how do the systems intersect? What is an example of systems like that in a real city?

Zef Egan
You could look at the board while you’re playing and think about it as a historical development. What historical drivers would create a city designed like this? Some of it is explicit in the event cards and the adaptation cards, some of it is imaginative. And I think students of every age are really adept at creating narratives and stories around what they’re doing, if you give them the opportunity to think like that.

After playing, the class could take a step back, look at the game board, and think, what kind of city is Ekos? How is it laid out? What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? Where are there environmental injustices? What communities lack access to education? Where is the sanitation infrastructure concentrated? Where are the power plants? What interventions could help this city thrive?

What are some of you future plans for Ekos?

Claudia Tomateo
We definitely want to translate into different languages. Especially languages of people of color. We are also interested in creating a VR application for Ekos. If the VR program finds an intersection of two systems, it could show you in a real life example, like a green roof on a college campus. It could be cool to implement this sort of like event cards form where people from different parts of the world can suggest different events.

Zef Egan
I love that idea. It would be like open sourcing part of the game.

Claudia Tomateo
Have you heard about Huizinga? In Homo Ludens he talks about the concept of the magic circle. When you’re playing a game, you’re inside this magic circle that has specific rules, and you’re in this like made up world. And as long as you step out of that magic sphere, then those rules don’t exist anymore. Right. And I think especially with a board game as a tactile thing that can travel between different spaces. You can bring this magic circle into different environments. Especially through the pandemic that was very interesting because I was basically quarantined by myself. But through this exchange with Ryann, sending emails, I was sending a digital form she was making it tactile. It was kind of like being part of the magic circle. It certainly kept me company.

Interested in playing Ekos? Get your copy of the game today. Visit http://urbansystemslab.com/ekos to purchase and learn more.

Claudia Tomateo is a Research Fellow in the Urban Systems Lab. She is an architect, urban designer and researcher with a focus in the intersection between cartography, urban narratives and strategic design.

Zef Egan is a teacher and writer, and the managing editor of Resilience Quarterly. @EganZef

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Urban Systems Lab

Research, design, and engagement for more equitable and resilient cities. http://urbansystemslab.com/