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Playing The Quiet Year, a tabletop game about building communities

Header image by Stulli via Wikimedia Commons

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There are four of us. Four people sat around a too-large table, huddled together around a faltering heater. Detritus of our meeting covers the table; half-chewed pens, photocopies of building plans, stale biscuits and mugs of now-cold instant coffee.

For two hours we have argued, while the autumn sun disappeared and fields outside washed black. When we started we tried to choose our words carefully, it didn’t work. Slips and misapprehensions have turned tongues hot, argumentative. Our voices, those of professionals, those-that-know-best, set against people who live this, year after year; neither quite having the right words to say to the other.

We are at the end of our meeting. To fill empty air we ask questions that don’t really matter. Each of us knows no matter the words we choose, we cannot convince the others to change their minds.

This meeting is about the building in which we are sitting, a small village hall. It’s neglected, walls and roof poisoned with damp and asbestos. Once it was the community’s heart; where people met, played, argued and fell in love. It’s now empty, mainly, the committee that runs it ageing. They barely raise funds to cover light, heat and this instant coffee.

The Quiet Year is a tabletop game about communities and the places where they break. 

Our job is to help community groups get funding. The committee invited us here, they want our help to find funds to refurbish their building. We know that funders wont pay for the building to be refurbished. They don’t want to spend money on something that will need more repairs in five years time.

We are trying to convince them that their way forward (the only way funders will accept) is to pull the hall down and rebuild. They won’t accept this, I understand their reluctance. There are too many memories tied to the hall, it has always been here and always will. They are not prepared to tear it down, even if it means potentially making something better. I wish I could find the words to change their minds.

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The Quiet Year is a tabletop game about communities and the places where they break. It’s a storytelling game you play as a group. You create a community and guide it through one year of relative quiet — between the end of war with the Jackals and the arrival of the Frost Shepherds. It’s an engine that tells tales of communities struggling against harsh winters, pulled apart by itinerant preachers, or drawn to blood over a drop of oil.

The game measures a year in week-long footsteps, each a turn taken by one of the players. You draw cards which ask you questions about the community and take an action that changes it. Slowly these answers form a shared image of your community.

Image credit: Kool Cats Photography via Flickr

Through the game players create a shared map, a physical representation of the community as it evolves through play. A small drawing is added every time something happens in the game to represent it. Players are not allowed to use words, only images. A blank sheet of paper is covered in icons and symbols, creating a story decipherable only by the people who wrote it.

The game focuses on communication, who talks and how. It echoes conversation in real communities, and the lack of it.

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Storytelling games are about talking. Like theatre and poetry they are an evolution of oral storytelling traditions. Shaping conversation, group dynamics, what people say and what they don’t is as important as deciding when to roll dice. Traditional roleplaying game design has forgets this. Games like Dungeons & Dragons create rules about why one bow is better than the other, how far you can travel in six seconds and what you can carry. They forget to talk about how players interact.

This is changing. Role-playing game designers are realising if you are asking players to create shared fiction then their interactions are the most important part of play. You have to create rules around interacting to give space for specific emotions to emerge. You get games like Fiasco in which the player’s characters are defined purely in relation to each other, Dog Eat Dog which uses unfair player interactions to replicate the broken power structures of colonialism, or Serpent’s Tooth which sees players steal the gamemaster’s authority for themselves.

You have to create rules around interacting to give space for specific emotions to emerge. 

The Quiet Year has the most explicit rules on talking I’ve seen, dictating who can talk and how much. The quiet in the title is reflected in the lack noise around the table. Most turns only one player gets to speak; a few sentences about what has happened that week, describing places, events and people. These limits mean you can never describe anything fully, creating a void other players can add to.

If you ever want to talk about your community with each other, you have to spend your only action that turn. You hold a discussion, each player contributing a few sentences of opinion. You don’t get to act on these opinions; that’s down to the next player. These rules map the imperfect ways that communities talk. Words can never fully explain meaning; people fill gaps with their own assumptions.

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Contempt is The Quiet Year’s key mechanic; it reinforces limits on conversation and creates personal reactions. The rules explain it best:

“If ever you feel like you weren’t consulted or honoured in a decision-making process, you can take a piece of Contempt and place it in front of you. This is your outlet for expressing disagreement or tension. If someone starts a project that you don’t agree with, you don’t get to voice your objections or speak out of turn. You are instead invited to take a piece of contempt.” 

Contempt isn’t described in absolutes; it’s not, “When this happens take this,” but is described emotively: “If you feel this way, you can take a piece.” This obfuscation is what makes the mechanic expressive. When you choose when to take contempt, is that you as a player or as a faction in the community? You are invited to, but who will be the one to actually take the first piece?

Image credit: Eric via Flickr

The clever thing about the contempt mechanic is that it has no hard mechanical impact on the game. It has no effect on the community, the map, chances of success; its effect is purely social. It’s a way of indicating feelings that you can’t talk about, if it changes anything it’s how the players interact. Contempt is a sham, but that doesn’t diminish it.

Interestingly, players tend to take contempt when they like an action. You might hate the impact of the action on the fiction, but taking contempt is a way of showing that you are paying attention. You’re saying that you’re engaging with the other players even if they’re steering the community in a direction you don’t want.

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The Quiet Year bridges a gap, standing between roleplaying game and board game. It’s the game I reach for when I play with new players, it teaches itself better than most. The rules made to be read aloud. First by the facilitator, the person introducing the game, physical instructions reinforcing words—show people cards, point at your map, write down scarcities—then cleverly by the other players. It gets passed round in a circle, everyone reading a page. This piece of subversion that showing this game is everyone’s; we all have ownership.

There are times that I want to abandon this reading, but I resist. I could teach the game’s rules quicker, not better. The Quiet Year turns teaching its rules into a ritual, a piece of theatre that actually makes playing the game better.

Communities in The Quiet Year tend towards brokenness. 

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At the end of the game you get to do something people rarely can: step back and critically assess their community. When the last card is drawn you are asked the question, “When the Frost Shepherds arrive, does our community survive?”

The answer, usually, is no.

You might care for what you’ve built, but communities in The Quiet Year tend towards brokenness. You build a beautiful simulacrum of a community before being shown its flaws. The game shows us that communities are a process, constantly being broken and fixed by the people who care about them.

In real life we rarely get to reflect on the communities we are part of. Games can be tools that give us this space to step back and reflect, allowing us to play out the difficult everyday with people we trust.

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Image credit: GabPRR via Flickr

There are four of us. Four people around a table in a warm room. We have mugs of steaming tea, in between empty sweet wrappers there is a map filled with symbols only we understand. A jagged line is the cliff moving implacably towards our village, a tooth representing the wolves that stole Mishka’s baby in the spring, that die is a project to give us clean drinking water for the first time in years.

A card is drawn; frowns appear on faces as it is read out. “A project fails. Which one? Why?” The well is chosen, over a project that I feel would encourage our people to be violent. I take a contempt token and smile.

The Quiet Year is by Avery Mcdaldno. You can buy the game here.