Though I backed Joe Mcdaldno’s game The Quiet Year when it was on IndieGoGo, my first opportunity to play it was this past weekend. With one player who’d been through the game before, and two of us coming to it new, we set out to start our quiet year. The game exists in a really interesting space, and I want to unpack that for people who haven’t played yet.
In The Quiet Year, you and your players are part of a GM-less game about community after civilization as we know it is gone. You’ve been through a lot of struggles, including a long and violent war. But this collection of seasons will be a quiet year for your community. In the head space of the game, your community that you play as doesn’t know that. They also don’t know that when winter arrives, the Frost Shepherds will come. You play through four seasons of life in this community, never knowing when the Frost Shepherds card will come once you hit Winter. As you head from Spring, full of new life and promise, to Summer, where the community may undergo growing pains, to the difficult Autumn, the story of the community unspools.
We opened the game with two pieces of paper, some pencils, The Quiet Year book, and the game’s deck of cards. You pass the book around, reading aloud to introduce the elements of gameplay. You’ll build the map as a group, and each turn will ideally go at a relatively paced clip. Each turn that active player has some very specific narrative authority. When I added new things to the map, called for discussions, set up new projects, those decisions weren’t subject to the same kibitzing and tug that they might be in a standard roleplaying game. Setting the duration of projects was fairly cooperative (“Do you think that sounds like four weeks would do it?”) but you’re not supposed to talk over or suggest things when people are adding to the map. I’ve only played in one design space that was so directly clear about waiting your turn and not talking over each other: Elizabeth Sampat’s game Deadbolt.
Though you don’t play a set character (which reminded me of the drive-it-like-you-stole it NPC approach in Apocalypse World) you do name people in the community. In the short scenes where a discussion occurs, you get a glimpse of this post-apocalyptic Quaker-esque meeting, where emotions are aired and community needs are brought to the fore. When you object to things that happen throughout the game, you don’t fight it out. You simply pluck a Contempt token from their small mound, and place it in front of you. This signifies that you object to something, and these tokens only leave the board when someone brings about a detail that allows you to let go of that contempt. They serve no standard mechanical purpose, but instead of being a part of game-math, they’re a part of game-emotion, which I find equally important and needed.
In our community, we saw religion, violence, agriculture, safety and emotions as some of our key themes. We didn’t know what civilization this community may have once sprung from, nor what would come after. But by the end of the game, our map was full, our list of Abundance and Scarcity complex, and a sense of conclusion came over us. Even though The Quiet Year doesn’t say what happens when the Frost Shepherds come, we let ourselves have one or two guesses. Perhaps they were our lost people, or vice versa. Maybe the Axe People to the South were their relations, or one of the strange groups of itinerants that we had encountered were their scouts, looking for a community to become a part of.
Our guesses were largely hopeful and curious, which is the same tone we picked up from the game. It is at its heart a game that is cooperative, encouraging of creativity, refusing to dwell too long on a single turn, and firm about sharing the story. I think games looking to do cooperative world/history building need to look at The Quiet Year, and that designers intrigued by non-competitive, highly creative-but-orderly design spaces should be playing this game again and again.
This is a game with a lot to offer, and it’s contained in an incredibly small package.
If The Quiet Year sounds fascinating, particularly its hopefulness-after-the-end aspects, the digital game The Yawhg is playable by more than one person (if you share a keyboard), and has many of the same kinds of statements about community to make, and contains a similarly strange and distant threat, unknown to the characters, for the Yawhg is coming to the kingdom, and the kingdom may be utterly unprepared to face it.
I personally find many post-apocalyptic setting emotionally disturbing and hard to handle. If you know of other games that explore such settings in unexpected or empathetic ways, I would love to hear more about them.