Strategy and board games are on the rise and, while I can only speculate on why, it may have to do with an increased desire to connect with others away from digital devices, combined with the way Kickstarter’s campaign system can help reveal invisible-yet-rabid niches.
Milwaukeean Dan Bullock is in the process of Kickstarting his own board game, based on the politics and conflicts surrounding the North Korean regime called "No Motherland Without" – quite a different niche than the dungeon-crawling of Gloomhaven.
"It was a topic that was considerably less in vogue when I started working on the project two years ago," Bullock says. "My wife Ellie was reading a lot of books and defector memoirs about North Korea and she nudged me to check them out. I started thinking about it in terms of a game because that was something I was interested in making anyway.
"Fast-forward a little bit – post inauguration – and it suddenly became a much bigger topic than I’d anticipated. I was a month or two away from having a working prototype that I could play-test, but I was glad I already had a head start; it meant that I could make a thoughtful game about it."
His Kickstarter page sets the stage for the game: "In the aftermath of the Korean Armistice Agreement, the Korean peninsula was divided in two. While its signature marked a cessation of armed conflict, the war was not over. In over six decades since the armistice was signed, three generations of [citizens in] the Kim regime resisted Chinese and Soviet control, endured famine, floods, isolation and economic sanctions while defiantly pursuing nuclear weapons."
But this game isn’t a rote, arms-length history lesson. "There’s a lot of historical gaming that’s about a top down view of history," he says. "Like, it’s about 'statesmen' and the decisions they make and how they impact nations but it’s very odd to play games that frame history with complete ignorance of the people actually involved.
"When thinking about this game, I turned to books by scholars that studied in Pyongyang, who had actually been in the country and had also read numerous historical accounts of what had happened around the close of the Korean War and the end of the Japanese occupation to the present.
"I thought I could integrate stories of defectors and their memoirs to get an idea of how the clash between North Korea and the West impacted the life of the average North Korean.
"I wanted players to be incentivized to do these very bad things on either side and be like, ’Oh, that’s how we got here.’ It becomes more stomach wrenching because it’s the people that you’re marking off—that’s the score—the impact of all of these policies on human lives."
Despite the heavy subject matter, though, the game is fun to play.
"A depressing experience is something you’ll do once," Bullock says. "But if the game is good, you’ll want to play it again and get something different out of it over repeated plays."
How do you play
"No Motherland Without" is a two-person strategy game and actions are performed by playing cards. The opposing players don’t win based on a points track, but by accomplishing goals related to either side.
"For the DPRK player they’re trying to ensure that the Kim regime has longevity, stays in power and making sure there is no military coup," Bullock says. "They need to meet the basic threshold for a standard of living to maintain power and simultaneously make sure they don’t get invaded or attacked by foreign threats.
"For the US or the West the idea is that they are trying to de-nuclearize North Korea while simultaneously trying to foster defection and get intel from those defectors. They can create pressure on the regime so it can be toppled by fomenting dissatisfaction."
Players can choose to play cards for their point value to accomplish specific tasks or they can choose to play the events and cause news-worthy shifts in the way the game plays, like the August Faction Incident that purged Kim Il-sung’s competition or the broadcast of a South Korean reality TV show, which addressed the stories and discrimination of North Korean defectors.
But sometimes you’re forced to inevitably trigger enemy events, which means deciding when the wrong situations can happen at the right time.
Beware, the game favors DPRK early on and can end if that player conducts a successful missile launch, but if the West can wait them out, the game balance begins to tip towards their success.
About the Kickstarter campaign
Unlike many Kickstarter campaigns, Bullock stresses that this one is not a "pre-order" campaign used merely as a buzz platform. "So many games on Kickstarter have publishers, so they’re there to market something they’re going to publish anyway," he says.
But if the ’No Motherland Without’ campaign does not succeed, the game will not be produced. Thus, support is important.
If you are interested in play-testing the game before you commit, Bullock will be holding an open table at the Milwaukee Beer Bistro on Tuesday, May 8 at 7PM.
Jason McDowell grew up in central Iowa and moved to Milwaukee in 2000 to attend the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
In 2006 he began working with OnMilwaukee as an advertising designer, but has since taken on a variety of rolls as the Creative Director, tackling all kinds of design problems, from digital to print, advertising to branding, icons to programming.
In 2016 he picked up the 414 Digital Star of the Year award.
Most other times he can be found racing bicycles, playing board games, or petting dogs.