I played a couple of weeks ago in This Is Tomorrow, a game inspired by post-war British architecture, designed and run by Graham Walmsley. I was one of five players shaping an imaginary city, recovering from heavy bombing, to house homecoming heroes and their families.
I’m still not sure exactly what kind of game you would call it. My best guess is that it was a kind of larp, as we were playing roles and standing up. Although we weren’t moving around much, and we weren’t playing actual characters as such: we were representing viewpoints and aesthetic philosophies.
Hmm, perhaps I’d better say a bit more about how it worked, and then you can decide for yourself.
So we started by each choosing a slip of paper from three different sets, in a manner reminiscent of Picking up the Pieces. The three slips related to (1) what you witnessed in the war – either overseas, or at home being bombed; (2) what the neighbourhood where you live now is like; (3) what’s your idealized vision of the future of city habitation. The statements on the slips were all quite abstract and impersonal, so for example in my case: (1) in the war I stayed in the city and saw cathedrals and churches blown to bits; (2) at present my neighbourhood is grotty with no running water, but I can see fields nearby; (3) my ideal is communities of people able to socialize closely together. That’s it for character creation: I was free to imagine/invent anything else about my character, of course – I figured that he had turned against religion because of his wartime experiences, and perhaps had lost a close relative in combat, and perhaps blamed himself for being unfit to fight – but in practice there was little need to do so, as the game gave very few opportunities to express or represent any of that sort of thing.
The city itself is represented by a grid of 25 ceramic tiles, each a neighbourhood. At the start of the game they’re a mix of bomb-damaged and greenfield (where the city has not yet spread). Over the game’s three phases, we players decided together what to build in each of the 25 neighbourhoods – first the innermost nine, then seven more, then the last nine. At each point, people would be displaced as we rebuilt, so we had to take account of the volume of housing that we were providing under the new plan.
In each neighbourhood, we had a choice of five different types of building: Needles, Domes, Pods, Houses or a Plaza. Each was suitable for different uses and was capable of housing different numbers of people. And, more importantly, each had different aesthetic and social values which tied in more or less well with our personal ideals of the future.
Apart from keeping track of numbers of people, there was no system to the game, and no real rules. We simply had to decide what to build where. We decided early on as a group that we would aim to proceed by consensus rather than each doing our own thing; and that we would ensure that each phase of new build had at least as much housing as what was there before, so that no-one had to be displaced.
We didn’t have to consider costs of building or of upkeep for the different building options, which I guess would have given it more of a boardgamey feel if we’d been having to optimize conditions relating to those as well as the housing numbers. It made it kind of unrealistic, as of course in real life cost implications would have been hugely important, but I think it was worth avoiding getting bogged down in bean-counting: that’s not really what the game was supposed to be about.
Decisions took the form of standing around the table which had the tiles on it, basically each arguing for our personal aesthetic to triumph and be imposed on the new city. As these aesthetics were to some extent contradictory, this wasn’t easy, and a certain amount of flexible interpretation and varying of the detail of the basic zone design options was necessary to reach compromise agreement. Discussions were often heated but rarely rancorous.
Playing for the draw
After we’d decided what to build where in each phase, then came the genius aspect of the game: we got to draw it onto the tiles, using marker pens. We divided up the tiles between us and each person drew their impression of that neighbourhood would look like once the new build was complete. This was immense fun, despite none of us being at all good at drawing. As I think this photo demonstrates:
The other significant part of the game was that Graham gave us feedback after each phase on how the city’s residents liked the new builds. So for example they tended to like Needles (tower blocks of flats) at first, but over time they found them isolating. Whereas Domes (cultural centres) were generally ridiculed at first but grew to be loved. This, and timekeeping to make sure each phase didn’t drag on too long, was pretty much the only GMing activity required: the meat of the game was just player discussion.
It’s quite hard to explain what made this game enjoyable. Reading back the description above, it sounds potentially pretty dry and unsatisfying. There was very little ‘story’, and very little ‘game’. After thinking about it for a while, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that there were three strengths which made it a rewarding experience:
- drawing the new bits of city was just tremendous fun. More games should involve drawing;
- the theme (which I’ll talk about below) was resonant and firmly foregrounded by the lack of extraneous matter in the game; and the history it evoked is fascinating;
- the other players were all fantastic and able to generate a great deal of lively and thoughtful interaction. Less experienced players might have struggled not to dry up at times.
That Was Tomorrow
The story of British post-war housing is a powerful one. If you aren’t familiar with it: in summary, a collection of architects and town planners took the opportunity of extensive bomb damage to realize a set of near-utopian ideals for how people should live. Rarely before or since can there have been such a large experiment in applying aesthetic and philosophical visions, some inspired by wartime experiences, on such a mass of population.
The main legacy we think of is the extensive use of tower blocks – ‘streets in the sky’ – which were intended as an ideal way of housing large numbers of people in healthy conditions on small land space. The hope was that living in such close proximity would bring neighbours together and make communities that were socially solid and better in every way than the low-level slums that had preceded them.
Sadly, this is not how it turned out. Despite initial enthusiasm for their cleanliness, space, and mod cons, many of the tower blocks within a few decades had become hellish and squalid prisons for their residents. Most have now been demolished.
In the game, it was difficult to play in a way that was unaware of this history. We had to portray the planners in their flush of idealistic enthusiasm, without awareness of what was to come. This would probably have been easier if we’d been playing them as characters, but as they were essentially just a collection of a few beliefs and feelings, persisting in selling the line despite knowing how flawed it was was an increasing challenge. But a stimulating one!
I think the general theme – that of the tension between personal vision and collective responsibility – is a very powerful one. Of course it’s one that’s often explored in larps and other games, but not in my experience as nakedly as in This Is Tomorrow. The very fact that there is so little material to the game means that every conversation must come back very quickly to that topic. This lack of distraction meant we were able to explore it very thoroughly. I think we probably all went away feeling that we could have a pretty good shot at planning a city in real life, we’d done so much work on thinking about it.
I hope it’s fairly obvious that this is not a game for everyone. But if you get the chance to play it, don’t rule it out just on the basis of the subject matter. It really was a very interesting and enjoyable experience for me, and I think for the others too. So you might surprise yourself!
[This is my first experiment with a poll on here. Let’s see how it goes…]