Red Carnations on a Black Grave

This week I picked up a package with a copy of Catherine Ramen’s Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune of 1871, where people of Paris tried to create an egalitarian, socialist state in the chaos following the war with Prussia and the fall of the second French empire.

The box came with a beautiful handwritten thank you note. Catherine Ramen reached out to me in 2017 and informed me of her plans to create a game about the Paris Commune inspired by Montsegur 1244, my game about the Cathar heresy.

Being in the process of relocating to Stockholm, I had unplugged from the gaming scene for a while, and I failed to discover the kickstarter that Catherine successfully ran for the game. It was only as the fulfilment was happening I again became aware of the game, and I immediately ordered a copy of the game and it arrived this week.

It is a great feeling to have inspired others through time and space to create a work of passion and love. While the game has earned a place in my game collection from this backstory alone, let’s take a closer look at how the game is designed and what play experience it promises to deliver.

The game components

The game comes in a beautiful black box with red and white text. A red carnation stands out on the front, a simple and powerful design. The box contains one full color, 128 page book and cards in multiple sets and two sizes: 18 characters cards, 18 fate cards, 10 Bloody Week cards, 33 placard cards, 18 question cards and one flag card.

The cards are sturdy with a reasonable text size for older eyes and a good use of colors and illustrations.

The inner margin in the book is somewhat narrow for this binding. This makes reading from a newly printed copy inconvenient and the pages may come loose in a well used copy. For frequent play, you will want to get a digital copy and print a the parts you need during play. Otherwise, the graphic design is appetising and appealing, with readable fonts and a good amount of dramatic full page color illustrations and smaller black and white details.

The book is divided into four parts: The rules of the game (22 pages), the game (with the story arc to be read during play, 20 pages), historical background (50 pages), and appendices. The historical appendices will both give you a tour of the 90 year history of revolution in France with focus on the final act, the Paris Commune, as well as and take you to Algier, Vietnam, Martinique, and New Orleans. Also in 1871, Paris is a city where people travel to from far away places.

The Paris Commune was a brief but intense revolution during the spring of 1871 led by groups of socialists, anarchists, communists, and other radicals. Together they tried to build a new, egalitarian society that would guarantee work, freedom, and an end to exploitation for all the people in the world. 

How the game plays

Red Carnations on a Black Grave is a collaborative story telling game with players taking turn in setting scenes and playing multiple characters. One player also facilitates the game to ensure a smooth and enjoyable game. This includes teaching the rules of the game, including play style and safety rules, and running a debrief after the game.

The game includes 18 characters, all live in Montmartre, a radical working-class neighbourhood of Paris, as the events of the revolution sweeps over them.   

Each character card comes with a brief pitch on a card with a framing question, a vocation, and one or more relations to other named characters. In addition, players draw two question cards, and from this, the players flesh out the details of their interpretations of their characters during play. 

The game plays in a single session of 4-5 hours. The story that the players create at the table unfolds in a prologue, 3 acts and an epilogue. 

In the prologue, the players create a montage of every day life of their characters in the days before the commune. In Acts One and Two, the social revolution of the commune unfolds until it falls in Act Three, where players choose one of their characters to die in the events of the Bloody Week. In the epilogue, each player decides for their remaining character if the character attempts escape, cooperates and hopes for a reduced sentence, or remain defiant and hope to go to trial. They then draw a card that reveals the fate of the character — death, prison, exile, deportation, or labour camp are all far more likely than escaping unharmed. 

Hence tragedy is ensured.

Verdict: To play or not to play?

Play!

I have no trouble recommending the game just from a read through, and it’s hereby on the top of the list of games to play when table play again is possible. I love how material components like cards facilitate play in a non-intrusive way so table play provides the optimal experience. But such an opportunity may still be a bit down the road, so maybe it’s time to look into how to run it online?

The design looks great and tight. While I can see places where the design of Montsegur 1244 shines through, there are many fine changes and additions that I’m sure push the game towards a strong (and safe) play experience.

Thanks Catherine, for creating a beautiful thing and sharing it with the rest of the world!

(And I’m sure you will not become a radical, anarchist, terrorist, or what-not from spending 5 hours looking through the eyes of someone living at another time and place, but you will get an emotional katarsis and also create a strong bond with your fellow players).

Mars to Stay: Discovering the wonderful world of EPUB

It’s been a little quiet here on the blog, so let me share an update on where I am with Mars to Stay, my story game about the first Martians pursuing the dream of a colony on Mars.

For the online version of Mars to Stay, I used GoogleDocs to edit and share the text. While GoogleDocs isn’t as feature rich as MS Word, it’s great when you want to focus on the content and when you want to share the text with reviewer and play testers (don’t get me started on O365 and the web version of Word). This worked great to get the content as I want it, and it can do a decent job of formatting a pdf for print. Embedding images and controlling size and placement were also not too fiddly.

A manned rover exploring Mars by Claudia Cangini. The scattered remains of previous missions reveal that things don’t always work out as easy as you hope.

Let’s get it on Lulu

So with a pdf ready, from there to self publishing on Lulu should be an easy ride. Right? Well, then I got into the wonderful world of the EPUB format. While an EPUB file is basically just a zip file with a bunch of xhtml-files, there is of course a little bit more to it than that before you have a clean file that will pass the quality criteria required for publishing and distribution. 

Lulu requires a file in EPUB format with meta data such as ISBN number set correctly. While Lulu offers a tool to create an EPUB file based on a MS Word docx file, I really didn’t feel like letting go of my Mac (or installing Word for Mac, enough said). 

Generating EPUB format with GoogleDocs

GoogleDocs can export also to EPUB so I went down that path.

A text like Mars to Stay contains a lot of lists and tables, so besides the nice images I commissioned from Claudia, it took a lot of iterations to get an EPUB file that would also render decent just on the Macs default EPUB viewer. Sections that looked the same in GoogleDocs that absolutely didn’t in the EPUB viewer. While GoogleDocs has some support for managing style sheets, it has its shortcomings.

I was soon to discover one more: When I finally had a decent looking EPUB, I created a project on Lulu for Mars to Stay. Title, ISBN, author, description etc. were all checklist tasks. But when I uploaded the file, a check complained that title and ISBN in the EPUB meta data didn’t match with what I had entered. There is no way to set the meta data in GoogleDocs and have it included in the export. 

So how about editing the generated file? It’s just zipped xhtml-files, right? Well, the generated EPUB file from GoogleDocs isn’t exactly humanly readable. Pages, the default word processing tool on Mac, allowed me to edit the meta data for title but not isbn. 

Calibre to the rescue

Browsing the internets revealed two candidate EPUB editors for Macs, hidden behind a wall of “we will fix your EPUB format for you” promises (a warning sign that this would not be as easy as I hoped). After convincing Apple that these open source programs not appearing in the App Store is perfectly safe, I got one of them, Calibre, up and running and have now taken it for a spin on Mars to Stay.

These are features I have found useful so far:

  • Merge identical style definitions. It looks like GoogleDocs creates one instance of a style definition per instance in the document and they all have generated identifiers which makes it practically impossible to get to a consistent layout by editing the source. By merging duplicate entries, it’s still tedious but at least possible. 
  • Find broken links. Fixing them is also doable.
  • Resize images. One of the formatting requirements on the publishing list is that embedded images are not too large (quite opposite from publishing for print).
  • Edit meta data like isbn. Hey, this is what I came here for!

Other nice-to-have features I have found are Smarten punctuation, Word count including frequency, and the Table of Content editor. You can feel when software is created by someone who needed it to do the job themselves.

The Check tool finds broken links much faster than testing each link as I’ve already did multiple times.
A list of auto complete suggestions makes it possible to navigate in the generated anchor names.
Why make it complicated?
An option to inspect the changes made by the tools give you full control of what happens. The Smart punctuation tool suggests to replace quotes and ellipses in this screen shot.

Back on track

So the project is back on track for a planned release any time soon. In the mean while, NASA’s Perseverance rover has sent images and sounds from Mars and the first flight on Mars is imminent