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).

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