Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
Between the 11th – 15th centuries, three distinct cultures fought for dominance over the smaller-than-it-looks, inhospitable landmass known today as Greenland. The Norsemen, led by the criminal Erik the Red, arrived in 980 CE to find the land already inhabited by the enigmatic Tunit people, who did not leave written records and whose spoken language was never translated. Most of what we know of the Tunit comes from the Thule, now the Inuit, who arrived last in 1200 CE. In spite of the harsh conditions, the three cultures squabbled viciously over the icy, barren island until, by 1430 CE, only the Thule remained.
This account, based on Greenland’s official cooperative/solitaire variant, imagines an alternate history in which the Thule, Tunit and Norse peoples chose to band together against the elements, collaborating and forming familial bonds to ensure the survival of all three cultures. It is told from the perspective of these mixed peoples’ descendants in a voice intended to evoke the Norse Sagas.
Many ages ago, the first of our ancestors arrived by longboat and umiak.
The Vikings brought with them their cattle, fat beasts producing nourishing milk; their written language; and their ironwork. The Thule brought knowledge of skin-covered kayaks and the means to produce airtight clothing, as well as a knack for communicating without language. The Tunit, already present on the land, had developed their own means of survival: devious fishing techniques, insulated houses made of packed ice, and lamps for boiling blubber. Blubber was plentiful on the island, since all animals required it to stay warm.
The first winter was a mild one. Ships arrived from across the big ocean, carrying squat ponies from an even smaller island nearby, with which they traded with the Thule for walrus tusks and seal skins. The white bears appeared in the north, driving out the Thule hunting dogs. Knowing that their fat beasts would be hungry in the barren land, the Norse sent a party of hunters to establish a colony on the mainland in a location they called Markland. However, the native Beothuk tribe, already entertaining Tunit guests, became angered by their new Norse neighbors, and many colonists were sent to Valhalla in the ensuing combat.
The Norsemen who remained behind hunted the small seals for their meat and blubber, or scavenged eggs from the bird cliffs, allowing their sons to grow plentiful and strong. The Tunit sought to corral and tame the wild musk ox, but the beasts were untameable and were instead slaughtered for their meat. The Thule, rather than hunting, researched new hunting methods to benefit the next generation, but they received no epiphanies. Their stout ponies provided some milk. All told, it was a good time.
The category of “simulation games” is borderline oxymoronic. All games are abstractions, and as far as simulation goes, there’s only so much you can expect to achieve, given the limitations of the medium–mostly dice, cards, and the human mind’s tolerance for procedure. (In contrast to electronic games, which can be constantly checking thousands of logic gates to produce an approximation of real-world conditions, tabletop games are limited by how many look-up tables and subcases the player is willing to endure before getting back into the game.)
Therefore, when I talk about “simulation” in games, I’m simply referring to a more granular level of abstraction, the opposite of what the game community calls “elegance.” The quintessential sign of a simulation game is that it includes details that do not directly contribute to, and sometimes detract from, the supposed raison d’être of games as a competitive diversion. If they were a book, they would be a Proust, in search of an editor.
A perennial exemplar of this design philosophy is Magic Realm, a long out-of-print game published by Avalon Hill, a company best known for publishing wargames before being dissolved into Hasbro. Originally conceived to hone the skills of generals and commanders, wargames were the original simulations games (they’re even called “consims,” or conflict simulations, to hobbyists). They can’t help but be as realistic as possible–it’s good to have an idea how the windspeed or terrain might improve your odds, or how to effectively counter various maneuvers, before you get onto the battlefield. When Avalon Hill published Tactics, the first mass-market wargame, in 1952, they set the ball rolling for consims to develop the insanely dedicated player community that they still enjoy today.
Avalon Hill made history again (not for the last time) when they published Magic Realm in 1979. The publisher’s first foray into fantasy (kicking off a line of Avalon Hill non-wargames that spawned classics like RuneQuest, Dune and Merchant of Venus), Magic Realm applied the granular detail of a wargame to a fantasy setting with wizards, dragons and trolls. Although it bombed due to over-complex and disorganized rules, it remains a sort of Mecca for a certain type of gamer. It’s an odd fusion of the wargamer’s love for verisimilitude and a setting that is, by definition, unrealistic. The (totally revised and abridged) 80-page rulebook that accompanied the second edition features extensive rules for caching, pack horses, seasons and weather, and developing personal relationships with local merchants. Even with the fanmade third edition rulebook, you’ll probably still need help figuring it out. Or you could always download The Magic Realm Book of Learning, a fan-created guidebook that spans a hefty 282 pages. Some call that unplayable; others call it paradise.
An outbreak of disease scarred the following generation, striking them with painful blisters that left their skins scaled like fish. The elders were hit harder than the hearty hunters, and much of the old knowledge was lost. To ward off future disease, the Norse imported iron pots, in which they would boil the water used for cleaning wounds after a hunt. The worst times were yet to come, but it was clear already that we could only survive by pooling our knowledge and resources. The Thule sent some of their sons to take Tunit wives, and the Tunit domesticated the musk ox, getting fat on the rich milk that flowed from its udders. Tunit colonists pacified the angry Beothuk in Markland with gifts of ivory, the Thule discovered more efficient harpooning techniques, and all tribes looked to the future.
The Long Winter hit the next generation. Little by little, the land began to cool. Game became scarce, and many elders died in the cold–except for the Tunit, whose Markland colonists sent them wood enough to weather the accursed era. With nothing left to keep their animals or elders alive, the Thule and Norse tribes became desperate and aimless. The Thule placed all their hopes on a successful narwhal hunt, and the Norse, knowing they would most likely need to sacrifice their cattle to survive the winter, sought to domesticate the more energy-efficient barren land caribou. Neither endeavor was successful, and that winter, the Norse and Thule peoples slaughtered their working animals for the meager heat their fat could render.
The Tunit, sending their sons south to marry Norse daughters and bring back knowledge of their hot-burning furnaces, hunted the white bears of the north for their meat and fur, highly valued by visitors from far off. This, at least, was achieved.
Phil Eklund describes his games as simulations, but Greenland‘s lens is more of an antique spyglass when compared alongside Magic Realm‘s electron microscope. Each round of play spanning an entire generation of the Tunit, Thule and Norse peoples of Greenland, it actually provides less granular detail than your standard, say, fantasy dungeon crawl. Greenland thinks big, representing families or villages with a single wooden cube, representing entire biomes with a single card. It earns its stripes as a simulation game based less on its level of abstraction and more on the things it chooses to abstract.
Players begin the game with a small tableau of cards representing the knowledge and resources of their chosen tribe, as well as a handful of wooden cubes representing their entire population (literally; if the last of your cubes dies off, your culture becomes extinct and you instantly lose the game). At the start of each round, or generation, an Event occurs–there may be feuds, climate change, elders dying off (and taking knowledge of the old ways with them), or ships arriving with trade goods from Europe. This is a mostly non-interactive process; the primary focus of the gameplay comes next.
Each player looks at her unassigned hunters (wooden cubes, six at game start) and plots out the path of their lives. They can go on Sabine (women) or livestock raids, be promoted to Elder status to teach the next generation, shipped to a New World colony, or sent off to hunt at one or more Biomes, cards representing hunting grounds, natural resources, or untapped ideas. There are two rows of Biomes, one for North Greenland and the other for the South, drawn randomly from corresponding decks. “Hunting” simply means rolling a number of dice equal to the number of hunters assigned to that task, praying for a 1 or 2, which count as a successful hunt. Specific Biomes require multiple successes and/or result in the deaths of members of the hunting party if specific results are rolled.
If the hunting party succeeds, they receive the hunt rewards, usually babies (meat from the hunt helps the next generation thrive) and sometimes energy (blubber) or ivory (anything tradeable). Iron, the third and rarest commodity, is typically available only from resource mining or European imports. Babies from the hunt, as well as any survivors, immediately become new unassigned hunters, ready for the next generation. Occasionally, Biome cards can be taken into your hand by rolling 3 or more identical results, to be added to your tableau as a domesticated animal, an invention, or simply a trophy, which has no in-game benefit but is crucial to achieving a polytheistic victory.
(The choice to shift from polytheism to monotheism, and the attendant changes to the game’s victory conditions, is beyond the scope of this article.)
As the cooling worsened, the afflicted tribes began to abandon their ways. The Thule sacrificed their last elder, leaving him to die in the snowy waste, so that the young hunters could attempt another desperate narwhal hunt. The Norse realized that they could not survive as savages, so they allowed a young man to learn the old ways of navigating at sea and promoted him to the status of elder. With their newly rediscovered knowledge, they sent a boat full of their young men up the coast to claim Tunit wives. The remaining few were sent to the seal colonies and bird cliffs, reliable but unrewarding sources of nourishment. The Tunit rowed south to hunt the barren land caribou.
Bad storms in the following generation killed off the Norse and Tunit mariners. Now reduced to a single hunting party, the Thule sent word to the Tunit to bring back their sons living among them, to be trained as mariners and gather sustenance at the bird cliffs to the south.
A distant war against the Saracens frightened away the arctic caribou but brought knowledge of new forms of weaponry: iron swords and cable-backed bows, both technologies the expanding Tunit readily adopted. The last of the Norse colonists in Markland perished to Beothuk raids.
Followed by dense fogs, great black-and-white sea-beasts appeared from the east, raining death upon the cliff-birds that had been the only reliable food source for the starving Thule and Norse peoples. Truly, an evil omen.
As mentioned above, the tell of a simulation game is when it chooses to include elements that do not help, and actually hinder, gameplay. Let’s look, for example, at Greenland‘s New World colonies of Markland and Vinland. Situated apart from the main landmass, they are accessible only by boat, which means that your tribe requires a Mariner elder if you want to settle there. More importantly, these colonies are largely autonomous. Babies born there are added directly to the colony, and colonists can’t be extracted or reassigned unless you abandon your colony completely. The men are needed to maintain and protect their new home, although they will send shipments of energy and iron back to Greenland when they can.
Player agency is one of the core concepts of modern game design. (That’s why hobby gamers use the phrase “roll to move” as a pejorative.) Greenland‘s colonies, frustratingly, remove player agency the moment they’re founded. But that frustration is the perfect abstraction of the distance the Vikings must have really experienced when they sent their friends and relatives across the sea to live in a land they themselves would never get to see, at a time when a journey of a few miles was still a major undertaking.
Simulation doesn’t always butt heads with gameplay, though. Sometimes, simulation can inspire unique, memorable mechanics (“theme-last” game designers should take note). Greenland‘s method of depicting climatic and ecological shifts over time–remember, the game spans several centuries in the period now known as the Little Ice Age–demonstrates this principle.
Change strikes from multiple fronts, and even the smallest disruption can start a tribe down the path to ruin. The most understated source of change is the Global Cooling event that appears on some of the start-of-round Event cards. The physical impact is almost unnoticeable: you simply move a Biome from the right (“warm”) side of its row to the left (“cold”) side. In narrative terms, encroaching ice sheets have decimated or cut off the animal’s habitat. Mechanically, that animal just got significantly more difficult to hunt, since Biomes on the cold side of the table require a 1, rather than a 1 or 2, for success.
Migration events can also occur as species enter and depart the changing ecosystem. This means drawing a new Biome card to replace (permanently) an existing one. The replaced Biome isn’t totally random, though; each card has a Climax value, and the lowest-Climax cards are always the first to disappear, a clever way to both simulate historical developments and ensure that the game ramps in difficulty as it progresses. Human beings can also fuck the ecosystem by domesticating animals or trophy-hunting them to extinction–in the latter case, the removed Biome is not replaced, so that overhunting limits all players’ options and inevitably leads to increased conflict over the hunting grounds that remain.
What’s great about both these mechanics from a gameplay perspective is that they’re semi-predictable. You don’t know when a Migration or Global Cooling will occur, but you do know which Biome will be the next to go (your trackers can read the signs), which means you might want to do that walrus hunt or domesticate that wolfhound now, since it might not be there next generation. Since hunting otherwise relies heavily on luck, this element of predictability is greatly appreciated.
Greenland’s most overtly simulation-y elements, though, come in the form of the unique advantages afforded each tribe. All cultures have access to the same 6 elders, but not all elders are created equal. For example, every tribe has a Tool-Maker, who lets you spend iron to play an Invention card from your hand, but only the Tunit have the Ivory-Carver, who can craft tools from metal or bone. Similarly, all Trackers give their tribe a bonus to hunting land animals, but the Thule Tracker can ignore the cold penalty when hunting in the New World (their land of origin), while the Tunit Trackers, who’ve inhabited Greenland the longest, can ignore it for all Biomes. The Norse Tracker, least familiar with the fauna of the New World, gets no such benefit.
Some tribe abilities, such as Literacy (increased hand size) and Igloos (no energy cost to train new elders), are attached to that tribe’s Daughters, allowing the player to share that knowledge–willingly or not–with another tribe via exogamy. Be careful, though: exogamy puts your tribe at risk of devastating outbreaks of sexually transmitted disease.
Following several years of devastating August storms, the Tunit finally decided to abandon their colony in Markland, as they would need every man at home. While the Tunit’s musk oxen kept their women and babies healthy, there was little the Thule or Norse could do but subsist as they could on wild dogs and skinny seal whelps.
The sea carried heavy sheets of ice that kept the fatter seals and whales out of reach, and the Thule finally perished to exposure and infighting. The great experiment at collaboration had failed. The Tunit might survive a little longer in the ever-cooling land, but it was only a matter of time before the Norse went the way of the Thule. Knowing that they could not last without the aid of their neighbors, the remaining Tunit–our ancestors–fled to the West, bearing only the faintest traces of Thule and Norse heritage forged by brief periods of intermarriage.
Greenland forfeits some degree of simulation in favor of providing an accessible, mechanically balanced and compelling gameplay experience, a trend that Sierra Madre Games seems to be pursuing with their most recent releases. Nonetheless, it serves as a stellar example of the genre of simulation game. Even though generations are shrunk into rounds and populations into a handful of wooden cubes, Greenland always feels exactly like the thing it’s meant to represent: an arduous struggle for survival in an environment unfit for human life.
Unlike other tableau-building or civilization games, Greenland never lets you thrive, never lets you watch your circle of thatch-roofed huts grow into a stone-walled empire. Instead, it beats you down relentlessly, forcing you to melt down your European sword for iron or slaughter your goats for lamp-fuel, punishing you with crowd disease and infighting as soon as your population reaches a comfortable level. The experience of Greenland at its harshest will be harrowing for many and “fun,” in the traditional sense, for few.
And that, my brothers, is what we call a simulation game.