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GameTek - The Vonnegut Files

GameTek - The Math and Science of Gaming
I had a different topic planned for this issue, but the passing of musical theater genius Stephen Sondheim has set me off in a different direction.
Let’s take a journey together.
Sondheim was a fan of all types of games. As noted in Slate:
As a child he had little love of art or music and, by his own evaluation, had little visual imagination. But his love of games - in this case Monopoly - helped him make friends with Jamie Hammerstein, son of the great lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, in 1942. “Ockie”, as Sondheim called the elder Hammerstein then, took the boy to see his new musical Oklahoma! when he was 13.
Sondheim was also a huge fan of puzzles, and is credited with popularizing the British Cryptic Crossword in the United States. He was also a huge fan of puzzle games like Myst, and was a big escape room aficionado. In 1982, after Merrily We Roll Along opened to poor reviews, he looked into switching to video game design full design, as a way to restore his creative spark.
The Last of Sheila, the only film written by Sondheim, arose out of elaborate immersive treasure hunt parties he threw for friends. (Note to self: throw elaborate immersive treasure hunt parties for friends)
As a Sondheim fan, I appreciate that his lyrics are frequently little puzzles to be unlocked in their own right. His love of games and puzzles, and their leaps of logic and intricate structure, clearly shine through in his work.
Much like the old saying “Everyone has book in them”, I always meet people who have a game they’d like to design. Reading that Sondheim wanted to design video games reminded me of an author who wanted to design board games.
Kurt Vonnegut is the author of classic novels like Slaughterhouse Five, Cat’s Cradle (Ice 9!) and Breakfast of Champions. If you’ve never read any of his works, go off and do that now. I’ll wait.
Welcome back! Your head must be spinning.
The events of this story took place in 2012-2013. I’ve told it to a few people here and there, but never publicly - until now.
While I never had a chance to talk to Vonnegut about games, he did come to speak at my college. I attended the lecture, so at least I can say we were in the same room.
Years later, I read a snippet in a bio that mentioned that in the 1950’s Vonnegut had designed a board game, but that it never saw the light of day. The story was that since the game went nowhere, he decided to dedicate himself to writing instead. Our gain, I suppose?
As the internet became more comprehensive, I kept poking around to try to find any more details about this game. However, it was always just that phrase - “he designed a board game” - but nothing more.
Back in 2012, I decided to put on my sleuthing hat, get a bit more serious, and see what I could find. I learned that Vonnegut’s papers were in the archives at Indiana University (he passed away in 2007). They had a catalog posted, and I found that “rules and descriptions of a boardgame” were in the mysterious “Folder 9”.
I sent an email to the library, and they said they needed to get in touch with the copyright holders. A few weeks later I was contacted by Don Farber, who it turned out was Vonnegut’s attorney through most of his life, and quite the character. He was a caricature of a New York entertainment lawyer, and spoke exactly how you would expect. “Vonnegut would’ve been nothing without me!” he confidently stated when we talked on the phone. “I put him on the map!” Farber died in 2016, a few years after we spoke.
Farber told me that no one had expressed any interest in the game before, and that no one had ever seen the pages since the 1950’s as far as he knew. He wondered why I was interested - which was easy to explain. I mean, why would you NOT be interested?
Shortly thereafter, a PDF showed up in my email from the library, that was a full scan of all forty pages of notes having anything to do with the game he had developed - GHQ.
Here’s the top of the first page in that packet:
Seeing Vonnegut’s hand-written notes on all the pages really stunned me. I guess if I had thought about it for a second I would have realized they would have to be there. But I assumed it would all just be typed up nice and neat. But his creative process was sprawled all over these pages - multiple iterations of the rules with cross-outs, notes to himself, doodles, and even snippets of a story he was working on scribbled on the back of a page of rules.
It was incredible.
The game itself was straightforward - two player game on an 8x8 checkerboard. And it was a wargame - GHQ being short for General Headquarters. Players controlled infantry, armor, artillery, and paratroopers, all attempting to capture the opposing headquarters. Given his antiwar and pacifism evident in his books and lectures, it is ironic that he designed a wargame.
The papers contained several conflicting iterations of the rules, and ambiguities. I decided to try to harmonize all the rules and see if there was anything there. And I have to say, despite the relative simplicity of the game, it actually had some neat aspects and was fun. You got to make multiple moves, and could choose which pieces to bring onto the board as reinforcements.
I playtested throughout 2013, and had some people play it at a local con. I didn’t tell them who the designer was to try to get some unbiased opinions. I just said it was designed by “someone I knew”. People genuinely seemed to find it intriguing.
I decided to try to see if we could sell it. I worked out a deal with the Vonnegut estate, and put together a package with Stephen Buonocore and Stronghold games to publish it. But we both decided that normal channels wouldn’t necessarily work.
We put together what we thought was a slam-dunk presentation for Barnes and Noble. They had been increasing their board game sales for a few years at this point. We pitched them a combination book/game. We would include the game, plus copies of the original pages of notes, doodles and all, and make it a B&N exclusive.
The response was incredibly deflating. “Not enough people know who Kurt Vonnegut is” they said.
What we should have done at that point was either just to publish it ourselves, or go to Kickstarter with the project (which was still very young at that point).
Instead we just tucked our tails between our legs and let the whole project die.
Shortly after that the Vonnegut papers were acquired by another company. I’m not even sure if they would have any interest in publishing it now.
So that is the sad end to my tale. I will leave you with this tidbit, however - an excerpt from a pitch letter from Vonnegut to “The Saalfield Publishing Co”, in November of 1956:
I have invented a board game, which Mike has seen and seems to like. I have played the game about a thousand times, and it works like a dollar watch. The bugs are out of the rules. [Geoff note: the bugs were not out of the rules]
It is similar in mood to chess, and is played on a standard checkerboard. It has enough dignity and interest, I think, to become the third popular checkerboard game.
A nine-year old can learn it. All the neighborhood kids can play it and love to play it.
Fully 11 months later he received a rejection letter. Truly things have not changed that much for designers (hah!)
I’ve considered trying to find out who owns the rights and see if they’re interested in letting me try a kickstarter for the game. Would you have any interest in this? Let me know!
Super Skill Pinball Ramp It Up Reviews
Ramp It Up has finally hit the stores, and the reviews are coming out. Dan Thurot, on his Space-Biff site, says it “is better than the original in every regard”.
Shut Up & Sit Down included it on their list of the 13 games for Christmas, saying “it’s a fantastic sequel to a fantastic game”.
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Geoff Engelstein
Geoff Engelstein @gengelstein

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