Words by David C. Obenour
The challenges and changes presented by global warming are massive to consider. Many of the ways we currently live simply aren’t tenable without adaptations to the whats and hows of existence. But necessity is the mother of invention and for all of our stubbornness, humans can be just as creative.
Looking to inspire new minds and voices to join the conversation, Pittsburgh’s the Tunnel Monster Collective was approached by the Land Art Generator and Burning Man’s Fly Ranch Project to create Regenerate!, a cooperative resource management game. Over 20 rounds of heightening climate realities, players are challenged to dream, design, and deploy their way to not only a more sustainable future but a better one than we could have even previously imagined possible.
Off Shelf: Regenerate! is meant as a teaching game so I wanted to ask what is it about gaming that you find powerful for teaching? How do you see it as differing from other methods of learning?
Adam Hnatkovich: I have always loved teaching, especially science. In my experience, students always responded positively to small group, open-ended discussions about real-world problems. Games – especially co-op games – can provide an opportunity for a similar experience: provide the player with a problem, develop a strategy given the parameters of the experience, deploy your strategy and receive feedback, adjust strategy and repeat.
Dave Knee: Yeah, co-op games are great at creating an environment that fosters engagement, and allows discussion for how to best proceed, which – hopefully – leads to discovering connections. Moreover, you get a tactile experience with immediate feedback.
Leo Kowalski: Playing games was a big part of how I learned and developed growing up. I have an older sister who enjoyed teaching me through exercises and puzzles. My stepbrother taught me to play Magic: the Gathering when I was 10 or 11 and it honestly helped me develop a broader vocabulary and think more abstractly. I’ve always found it much easier to learn when I am finding joy in the activity.
Ian Darwin: I got really excited early in the design process about the opportunity to teach players practical collaborative problem solving skills. I don’t have a background in education, but as a student I haven’t encountered a lot of opportunities that taught grounded skills. Giving players limited resources and a shared goal puts just enough pressure on players to organically work out efficient communication and priorities.
OS: In terms of Regenerate!, what excites you about the way you were able to embody the concepts presented through gaming?
AH: When we were approached by Land Art Generator to collaborate on game design, we were ecstatic! At that time, we were in the early stages of designing a game about climate change, so the seeds were already in the soil, so to speak. We were able to merge some of these ideas with those of Land Art Generator and the Fly Ranch Project. In doing so, we had a unique theme – sustainable community development – which always feels good when you are in the early stages of game design.
As we playtested, we noticed that some players weren’t familiar with the social and scientific concepts that form the backbone of the game. We had to ask ourselves, “Is this type of complexity acceptable in a game context? Is it acceptable, or even desirable in an educational context?” The answer to both questions was yes. Climate change, natural resource management, community building… these are complex challenges. In the real world, we can approach these challenges using methods similar to what we use Regenerate!. We leverage our perspective and abilities to solve the problem as a collective. During testing, as players started to build sustainable systems, it was encouraging to see their optimism despite the challenges of the game. That is precisely the attitude we need as we tackle real-world problems like climate change.
ID: This game represented a unique opportunity to combine a lot of our personal and professional passions. Adam’s background in ecology paired wonderfully with the work that Leo and I have been doing in the renewable world. We were excited to provide a blend of grounded, practical elements of conservation and sustainable design with some optimistic-futurism about the technology on our immediate horizon. The highest praise I think we’ve received was from some of the community stakeholders of Fly Ranch when they said they could use our game for actual project development!
Off Shelf: On that topic, when you play the game, do you normally play who you are in real life? How does that change how you act in the game and has it translated at all into changing how you think or act in life?
AH: I have the most fun playing characters who are far from my professional background. I love the Rancher. Their special abilities focus on Agriculture, but the timing of their abilities is slightly out of step with the other Partners. I think this is an interesting aspect of cooperative project management. You must be ready and willing to work with people from all walks of life, people who may not share your work or communication style, or your approach to problem solving. But you have to make it work. Regenerate! demonstrates this, but on an expedited timeline.
DK: Unlike the others in TMC, I don’t have a background in conservation or renewable energy. Creating the partners – and the whole game, really – taught me a great deal about creating sustainable systems, the professions that run them and how they can be integrated into everyday life.
LK: We really did put a lot of care into making the partners feel differently and—as much as possible, given our life experiences—have that feeling reflected in their mechanics. None of us have ever been ranchers, for example, but we imagined being somebody constantly on the move, engaged with our land. Hopefully, that’s what came across in the design.
OS: I was a little surprised at the amount of beneficiary Event cards – was there any consideration to allowing for a more successful game when one of the goals is to educate?
DK: Events were tricky to balance. We made a lot of revisions to make them feel right, something close to fair. We included beneficial events to make sure players didn’t get completely overwhelmed, which was a real problem in Stages 2 and 3 of the game when the Events become more intense and more frequent as you move deeper into the game – simulating the impact of climate change. Even now, luck of the draw plays a big part.
LK: Regenerate! is a game about building a sustainable future. While managing and overcoming adversity is a significant part of that experience, optimism, joy, and hope are important aspects as well. When you particularly embattled in the late game, knowing that something positive could fall into your lap can be very inspiring.
ID: I love this question. As Dave indicated, balancing Events was very difficult, and we definitely had iterations of this game where the Events were a fearsome stack of atrocities to deal with. But there is one thing that is often sorely lacking in conversations regarding climate change, sustainability, and our prospects of maintaining a habitable planet; optimism. We wanted most of the challenge of this game to come from the footprint a community of humans leaves behind and the considerations we have to make before building infrastructure. But overcoming those challenges only to get demolished by back to back disasters that you have no control over ended up being more emotionally debilitating than it was fun.
OS: Regenerate! is a long game with play lasting 20 rounds. What considerations went into how long or short to make a game last? What do you see as the benefits and detriments of a longer play time?
AH: Climate change is a huge part of this game, and we wanted Events to escalate to mimic the frequency and intensity of natural and anthropogenic disturbance. Having 20 rounds gave us time for that mechanic to breath. As an educational tool, the game is meant to stimulate conversation and deep thinking about community development, sustainable development, and how those concepts can be at odds with each other. The decision-making/AP, especially at higher player counts, is part of the experience. If nothing else, players can find a way to be more efficient as the game moves forward – delegating tasks in-game, for instance.
We are designing some new games which focus on land management and stewardship in different ecosystems, and exploring different game mechanics that can support that experience. These will be much faster games, which may be easier to deploy in a classroom or at game night.
DK: It’s crazy that it used to take longer because of more fiddling with tokens. The amount of upkeep and housekeeping could have been improved, I think. However, we always planned for Regenerate! to be a long, in-depth game, probably played over multiple sessions during class or labs. It can be a detriment to casual play but the hope is players use all that time to devise strategies.
LK: While a full gameplay can be a bit of an investment, it is also an immersive experience. Given the fact that to be successful in this game players must share their resources and take advantage of their partner’s special abilities to the fullest, everyone at the table is constantly interested and engaged. You don’t really notice the clock while you are in it.
OS: Can you talk about how you picked the roles of partners for the game? What considerations did you have for the roles you wanted to include? Were there any considered that had to be left out?
AH: It wasn’t easy curating the list of Partners and balancing their abilities, which are very asymmetric. We hope that the Partner special abilities teach players about how they can leverage their own abilities as we try to make the world a better place.
We have a recurring archetype called “The Gambler” that seems to pop up in all of our games. That would have worked nicely in Regenerate!, given the harsh, western desert setting.
DK: (laughs )The Gambler is the best partner and it is a travesty they didn’t make the cut!
We wanted to have a diverse collection of professions to show the benefits of cooperation between disparate skillsets. Some of them came naturally, like the Rancher, Engineer, and Hydrologist – they all interact directly with resources in the game. Others, like the Artist, Designer, Writer, and Community Organizer, were a little harder to design. Like, how do they gain you resources? They don’t, but they can provide benefits in other areas. It takes a team, and teams are often best when they bring a wide range of perspectives.
OS: Collaborative games can sometimes be challenging when it comes to the personalities of those playing – an alpha gamer can turn a group game experience into a proxied solo one. What sort of considerations do you have for that?
AH: The alpha-problem was a concern. As game designers we try to create a set of rules that facilitate a fun experience. Educational games go one step further, with specific learning objectives that we hope to satisfy. Regenerate! is dynamic, which helps to alleviate some of the alpha-gamer problem. Events have persistent effects, players/partners have unique special abilities, each player needs to manage their own hand of cards, projects are collectively designed, and there are plenty of stewardship tasks that require attention. As the game progresses and the team grows their community, they have a lot of tactical options. It’s difficult for one player to manage all of that, although admittedly, the game is fun for solo play.
Alpha-personalities can be even more disruptive in an educational game. If one or more players are unable to contribute to the team’s strategy, they won’t have fun and will probably tune-out. If they tune-out, they aren’t learning. For Regenerate!, one easy solution is to designate a “community leader” in each round of the game. There is no set turn order in Regenerate!, so each player can assume a leadership role during different parts of the game, having the final say in any decisions that impact the team.
LK: There is also some educational value in learning to deal with those types of people in a proxy setting. Navigating clashing personalities and expectations is a huge part of professional work and collaboration. I trust that skilled educators can leverage these experiences, difficult as they may seem in the moment.
OS: Coming from a rich background in this field, were there real world realities that you wanted to incorporate into the game but you couldn’t make work in the context of a game?
AH: It would have been nice to get deeper into the intricacies of restoration ecology. Restore is an action that players can take in game, allowing them to deal with hazards and degradation that plague their community. There was already a lot happening in the Event deck, and players already had so many action options based on the types of structures/projects they chose to deploy… adding another level of complexity may have been asking too much from an educational game. That being said, landscape restoration is a topic we will bring to the forefront in future games.
LK: We are exploring civil structures and public policy impact specifically environmental and energy considerations for future games, but it felt too cumbersome to layer into already pretty crunchy game experience. These considerations are so important to how we address climate change, however, and really do deserve more exploration in these types of games.
OS: The two other announced games on your website are related to restaurants and dining – coming off of a project as large and ambitious as Regenerate! how are you approaching these new titles? What is similar and what is different?’
AH: I spent many years working in professional kitchens, and I have always wanted to make a kitchen-themed game that emphasized team work and time management. Brigade was our first attempt at a kitchen-themed game, and in early 2020, I thought we were on the right track to create this experience.
Regenerate! was developed on a very aggressive timeline: we had about 6 months to develop the game and test before it went to print in January of 2021. When we decompressed in Spring of 2021, it was pretty clear that Brigade was overly complex, and was trying to capture too many aspects of the culinary experience in a single game. I decided to split the game into two distinct concepts: a medium-weight, competitive Euro (Brigade) and a light-weight cooperative worker placement game (Chef’s Table).
To me, the development timeline is the obvious difference between Regenerate! and other TMC projects. With Chef’s Table, we have more time for public playtesting, blind playtesting, promotion, etc. That being said, Regenerate! provided a wave of momentum that was extremely important. We were fortunate to work with extremely talented designers at Land Art Generator, which gave us new ideas for visual design and cooperative mechanics: when we finished Regenerate!, we deployed these ideas and moved forward aggressively with game and visual design for other TMC projects.
DK: As Adam mentioned, Regenerate had a very short development. I’m sure if we had a few more weeks or months we could have improved the game further, but I’m very happy with what we accomplished in such a short amount of time. We learned so much about the design process and about how we approach games as designers. We learned how to think about games beyond just a strategy for winning.
Chef’s Table is also a co-op game, and carries some elements of Regenerate! in a broad sense, but hopefully in a more sophisticated form. We learned a lot from Regenerate!, and I hope we also learn a lot from Chef’s Table. My hope is our best game will forever be our next one.
LK: We are constantly investigating new game ideas, by way of a cool theme or an interesting mechanical space we want to explore. As the others have noted, giving these ideas a lot of time to breathe is wonderful, but Regenerate! taught us that we could bring something together on shorter development cycle if necessary. With that in mind, we certainly have more projects in the hopper and more collaborations to announce soon!