I’ve been working on a new design, tentatively called “Smalltown, USA.” It’s a cooperative game where players are City Council members trying to stave off population decline in a small American town. The game came together in what seemed like no time at all. I was driving to Charleston, SC, which is about 3 hours from our home in Atlanta. We drove through several small South Carolina towns that were in pretty bad shape; empty storefronts, abandoned buildings, crumbling infrastructure. I was saddened to see these small towns in such a state, as I imagined that they could have been thriving 30 or 40 years ago. There was this melancholy that I felt when considering the plight of small town America, as economic factors drove residents to leave for bigger cities, with only a few resilient and, perhaps, obstinate townspeople staying put. I felt the sting of remorse for what we have lost by industrialization, becoming what we have become (for better or for worse). While I didn’t draw conclusions then, and still don’t, about what is better in the big picture when it comes to the decimation of small town America, I did feel a pull to do something, to fight for the survival of these small slices of Americana, these glimpses of who we once were that inform who we have become.
In that moment, I thought up the general idea for this game. It was borne out of a emotional response to the world as I perceived it. I spent most of the rest of that car ride imagining possible mechanisms to help create the feel of fighting to keep a dying town alive, the pitfalls and the victories that residents of these forgotten places no doubt experienced. By the time we had arrived at our destination, I already had the whole game mapped out in my head. So, I got to prototyping, testing, and refining. It came swiftly.
But, that is what I love about the creative medium of board game design. We have the ability to tell a whole story, one that someone else can be immersed in and experience tangibly. As I diligently plug away at putting Smalltown, USA together, I can believe that I’m doing more than making a game. I’m telling their story. That’s unique to the medium, and something I have come to love. As I approach my designs, I’m constantly asking myself if the mechanics and game play feel like the theme attached to them. Do players feel like they’re there, working hard at trying to save some sleepy town in the middle of nowhere?
It’s a fun, life-giving process. As a descendant of Americans who founded and eventually abandoned these small towns, leaving behind their footprints and their stories, I feel a subtle responsibility to tell those stories. It won’t change the world, it won’t have any impact at all, most likely. But in telling the story we provide a chance to hold it up for examination so that we can draw conclusions about how the world is. We immortalize in legend that which is, and sometimes that which is dead and dying.