Words by David C. Obenour
Games can serve many purposes. Far beyond just tossing dice or collecting sets, they can be a way to challenge ourselves and each other, a way to get to know your fellow players better, a way to learn something new about the world around you, and more. As analog gaming becomes more popular, the ways and worlds in which we game become more varied and exciting!
Having just launched their Kickstarter, Gone Caving explores many new twists and turns for modern gaming. A fundraiser for the National Speleological Society, this card game takes players on a caving expedition into a world filled with curious creatures and marvelous formations.
Off Shelf: Tell us about the first time you went caving.
Jared Embree: I’m not completely certain when I went caving for the first time. I’m guessing it might have been around 8 years old, with my father. We had small caves on the farm and we explored them together, rather than my parents waiting for the kids to get old enough to sneak out and do it alone. I’m glad we did, because it changed how I think about that sort of thing as an adult. It isn’t a question of if something can be done, but rather how to do it safely and who to do it with. By the time I was 18, I was exploring vertical caves, helping with cave surveys, and supporting other people doing research underground.
OS: What about caving most excites you to share with others?
JE: For me it’s about exploration, and seeing people embrace that it is worth it every time. For young people it’s totally expected, but seeing adults rekindle that feeling of discovery that comes naturally when we’re young, that’s really great to share. My friend Horton always said “people climb mountains because they’re there. Exploring caves is about what might be there.” I think that really captures the feeling for me. It’s about not knowing what you might find and getting to share that experience with friends.
OS: What do you think is the most common perceived mental or physical obstacle that keeps people from caving who might otherwise be interested?
JE: I think the obstacles to going caving for the first time are generally mental. There are so many different kinds of caves that there is something for everyone, and you can really choose how much you want to do. There are caves so big you can drive trucks through them! Don’t get me wrong, there are also some wildly inaccessible places underground, but it’s more often the case that those require some training and preparation, both mental and physical, rather than being things that will keep a person from being able to participate. I would encourage anyone who has an interest to find a local grotto through the National Speleological Society [NSS] and give it a try.
OS: Games can be used in a lot of different social situations, as party games, strategic games, passing time games, and more. How do you generally find yourself using games and how does that relate to what you enjoy about them?
JE: I use games first and foremost to bring people together, but there are two things that really get me excited about a game. The first is how people interact while it’s being played, and the second is how success is defined. If a game stimulates people to communicate with each other, and there are multiple ways to approach “winning” I really like that. I think that means I like the social aspect, but I also love puzzles. I love looking around the table and seeing how different people are approaching things in different ways.
OS: Gone Caving uses some of the same basic game mechanics as the classic game Mille Bornes, what did you like about that game that made you want to adapt from it?
JE: Mille Bornes has spawned a lot of different games over the decades, and I think that’s because the mechanics are simple enough for anyone to pick up quickly and play, but there is enough variation in the way people play the game that it doesn’t get boring. There is an elegant simplicity about that game that gives it a timeless aspect missing from some modern games. I go back and play it year after year. I can’t say that about all games.
OS: What are some of the differences from Mille Bornes that you added for play in Gone Caving?
JE: We expanded the mechanic of Mille Bornes with several elements. First is the use of character cards. Gone Caving has character cards that give players skill sets specific to caving that change how they respond to challenges underground. There are also character cards that change how scoring happens for different passage explored. These characters are biologists, geologists, and cartographers, and there are passages where players encounter elements connected to each. This goes back to that idea that there are multiple ways to approach “winning” and each person can do it their own way. Additionally, we added several event cards that are more involved than simple challenges, and are specific to the theme of caving. Together these elements add a lot of possible variation to the gameplay without adding a lot of complexity for new players.
OS: The art for Gone Caving seems very intentional about showing different sexes, ages and races of the cavers. Has that been your experience on caving trips or is it more of an aspirational goal about what the future of caving could look like?
JE: We discussed representation a lot during the work on the illustrations. We wanted to be sure that players, especially young players, could see themselves in the characters in the game. During play testing it was all worth it to hear a middle-school age player excitedly shout “I’m the geologist!” That was a great indication that we did something right. That same day a much older player with decades of caving experience puffed out their chest when they got to “be a cartographer,” something they do in real life. Caving is an activity that brings people together who might not otherwise meet, just like games do, and that inclusion of people is something we want to support in every way we can!
OS: Are there other aspects to the art that you wanted to be intentional about how they presented caving to a new audience?
JE: We wanted to present accurate portrayals of the animals, equipment, and formations that cavers encounter. Of course, this is important for the educational aspects of the game, but we also want to start people off with real ideas about what caving is like. There are plenty of “spooky” cave games out there, and we really went a different direction from those. We want to be sure not to spread any misconceptions about bats or anything frightening about caves. Caves are beautiful and we wanted the illustrations to reflect that beauty.
OS: Gone Caving is a fundraiser for The National Speleological Society, can you tell us a little about why you choose to work with them?
JE: The NSS is the largest organization in the world working to further the exploration, study, and protection of caves. They do work for conservation and education that certainly mirrors our own goals with Gone Caving. There are also a lot of really fun interesting people who are both cavers and gamers, so we thought we should approach this together. The folks at the NSS have been really great to work with, and since we are making Gone Caving as volunteers, everything we do directly benefits the NSS and the work they do.