When I was growing up, history was a list of wars. This was partly the fault of games. From an early age I played any game I could find and hunted for more. At yard sales I would rifle through stacks of Milton Bradley to dig up a tattered copy of Third Reich or Wooden Ships & Iron Men. These games shaped my understanding of history. At the school library I tended to ignore the books that didn’t concern armed conflict. History was a list of battles and all the rest was window dressing.
Of course, this was also partly the fault of historians. Even today at my local used book store there are usually more books on the Second World War than all of the non-military history combined. The same might be said of historical games as well. A handful of eras and conflicts dwarf all of the other subjects. I don’t mean to denigrate the many fine historians and designers who work on these popular topics. But, the market does the historical record a disservice. The historical record is so vast and so interesting: how could we settle for such limited focus?
The idea for An Infamous Traffic was planted in my mind nearly a decade ago when I played Martin Wallace’s Brass. Here was an economic board game that attempted to really capture a specific historical moment. It had arguments to make about its subject and was comfortable with specificity, even if it made the game a little less aerodynamic. At the time I was reading pretty heavily into the history of the British East India Company for my honors thesis. Inspired by Wallace, I wanted to build a massive economic simulation about the operation of the Company.
In the end that germ of an idea produced about five different games. The first three were terrible. It turns out that the chaos and uncertainty of global trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth century makes for a frustrating play experience. Players always walked into my playtest sessions brimming with hope and left sour. As the design iterated, I began to sharpen my focus, eventually training my attention on trade with China right after the Company’s monopoly was revoked.
By this point I had finished Pax Pamir and attempted to adapt a card driven tableau builder (ala Lords of the Spanish Main) to the problem of the trade with China. The result worked only in the loosest sense. The games were extremely uneven. Some matches were wonderful, tense affairs and others were slogs. To solve this problem, I decided to approach the game as a tightly balanced asymmetric affair with three positions: the Chinese government, the smugglers, and the British firms. This made for a pretty interesting game but one that was almost impossibly opaque and very hard to teach. After Pax Pamir, I wanted to design something simpler and more accessible so I scrapped the project.
In the spring I had the good fortune to work on a piece on games and the Civil War with Tom. Afterwards Tom asked if I wanted to submit a design and, at his request, I decided to revisit my historical economic game. I started by scrapping everything but the general design ethos. This was partly due to the production limitations of Hollandspiele. I love designing within sharp constraints and Mary gave me one I hadn’t ever attempted: 176 counters. Though Mary comforted me with the option of cards if needed, I was determined to work within that single counter sheet.
Over the next month I did some more reading on the opium wars and began crafting the models for the game. The skeleton of a new design was sketched out on the backs of brochures while I waited anxiously in our hospital room for the birth of my second son. This design was further solidified when some minor complications in his birth lead to an unexpected week in the hospital. With my wife and child mostly sleeping through the days, I was left alone with my thoughts and a pad of paper. By the end of the stay I had a game. The design was inspired by a heady combination of Tom’s Northern Pacific, a little Brass, and Franz-Benno Delonge and Thomas Ewert’s Container. My initial desire was to attempt to invert Container and have the players work the supply chain backwards. This proved somewhat more complicated than I anticipated. Sometimes concepts from a game can be lifted seamlessly and retooled. If Container seemed simple, the game itself was so carefully calibrated that pulling out just one or two concepts caused the whole thing to come unraveled. This unraveling took place over summer during an extended trip back to the Midwest where I was able to play the game almost daily with my brother Blake and his friends. It was during these many sessions that the dice were introduced and much of my debt to Container was replaced by a new debt to Dieter Danziger’s still formidable Locomotive Werks. Throughout the processes I consulted often with my other brother, Drew, and a host of close friends about the design.
By the time I got back to Austin in late summer, the design was nearly complete. As the core system of the game strengthened, I started reintroducing some of the historical chrome that had been cast aside when the project began. During the final weeks of the game’s development the two-tiered victory condition, present since the game’s inception, was further sharpened with the addition of the scion system which allowed me to better articulate the central argument of the game.
I study nineteenth century British literature and culture for a living and in my field scholars are quick to note how the experience of empire transformed the island nation. For one thing, people started drinking tea and purchasing elaborately woven rugs. However, the domestic culture and society also changed empire. Those that looked abroad for their fortunes at this time usually did so with the desire to return home with riches and the ability to assume a respectable position in society. Thus the fortune made by James Matheson was ultimately used to ensconce him in the aristocracy. Upon his return from China he purchased, among other things, the Isle of Lewis which he ruled like a benevolent feudal lord from his sprawling Victorian estate of Lews Castle.
There is no shortage of games about empire or about trade. In these games players are asked to conquer the world or else pile up the largest stack of cash. While those goals can reproduce some of the tensions of their era, I think they misunderstand the forces that shaped the period. To be sure, Britain’s empire was a global project and one filled with hubris. But, it was also a domestic project, undertaken by a class of people who looked beyond their home to realize their personal ambitions. Money and land were never enough. For this reason, inspired by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga’s brilliant Greed Incorporated, I decided to make the game revolve around questions of status and respectability. The scion system and the London Season provides a set of reasonable motivations that foreground the behavior of the player’s companies. The prizes to be won are consciously cast as silly. After all, how many games do you own that could be decided by a fancy hat or a fox hunting accident? The tongue-in-cheek nature of these prizes is meant to elevate the silly into the serious. As a cultural motivator, a fashionable hat might be just as serious a force as power or wealth. Indeed, it can be a symbol of both. Those who study history would be wise to treat these cultural motivations with the same gravity we afford to matters of war and finance.