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!