gordon calleja


Posthuman: the board game


1. Overview

Posthuman is a board game for 1 to 6 players. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world where genetic mutation has gone rampant and our genetic successors view us as the seed of all discord and are thus striving to eradicate us from the face of the earth.

The players start off as human survivors trying to reach a community holed up in a fortress. On the way they meet mutants who will try to turn them mutant. Players receive scar cards, which can be either or contain mutations. On receiving 3 mutations a player can switch sides and turn mutant. Human players win as individuals by reaching the fortress first. Mutant players win as a collective by stopping humans from getting to the fortress.

2. Design

Posthuman’s design was dictated by a set of design goals that I laid out in the very first days of the process, around 5 years ago. These design goals stemmed fairly evenly from thematic and rule-based concerns and are:

• The generation of a rich, emergent narrative in the players’ minds
• High re-playability
• Non pre-scripted side-switching mechanic
• Plays equally well with any number of players
• Introduces players to the world of Posthuman
• Imparts a sense of a long, grim journey peppered with moments of levity.

To give you a behind-the-scenes peek at the design process I will delve into the first of these design goals in some depth, explaining the thinking for several choices made.

Emergence is a concept that broadly expresses the generation of a system from a multitude of small parts interacting with each other where the resultant whole is something new and irreducible to any of its parts. The primary design goal of Posthuman is the creation of an ongoing story in the players’ minds that emerges from interaction between every card, die-roll, action and player-interaction in the game.

Now stories become meaningful when they contain drama and drama is best achieved right after a lull in action. In films and novels this is often achieved through “filler” scenes where little action happens. These scenes keep us engaged while creating a sense of passage of time and preparing us for a more emotionally evocative sequence. These dramatic arcs require careful pacing from the creator.

But if game designers pre-script events to create dramatic tension they lose two core attractors of games: players’ sense of agency and the wonder that is created by the novelty inherent in emergence.

To create this wave of dramatic action while retaining engagement throughout I decided to have several levels of passage of time in the game: day-actions, narrative actions and combat actions. In day action time, a single action spans a whole day on the randomly generated tile-based map. When travelling in the world of Posthuman you draw an indicated number of encounters per zone/day. These can either be combat encounters taking you straight to combat action or narrative encounters. In combat actions every player action represents a few seconds. Here players take anywhere from 1 to 10 mini-actions, often in the form of die-rolls, where life and death would be decided and thus drama heightened. In narrative actions players take a single test or decision, which covers the whole encounter. These serve both to flesh out the Posthuman world through their narrative situations and to give importance to non-combat aspects of characters and the game. Finally, to enhance the sense of time passing I added event cards that include a variety of events occurring in the world and affecting all players as well as weather changes. The more things happen in the players’ internal story world the stronger the sense of time passing becomes and the richer the story feels. By splitting time in this way players have a sense of time passing and many events happening in a relatively short period of playing time. Seven turns take just under an hour to play in a 3-4 player game. In an hour players experience a week of events, with heavy rains, a momentary heat-wave, several life-threatening situations, discovery of new locations and people as well as interactions with each other.

Splitting time thus became both the backbone of emergent story and the game mechanics. But in order for this time-split to be effective players need to have choices and outcomes that are both interesting in a game sense (otherwise the game would just be boring to play) and also foster the generation of mental images that, when strung together form the on-going story. On the day-action level of the map, the interesting choices take the form of which actions to take on the map, which terrain tiles to travel into and attempt to score and the dwindling resources that need to be managed: food, health and morale. Since Posthuman is essentially a race to the last zone on a journey track, all the above is complicated by the positions of each player and the amount of players that have switched over to the mutant side and are now hunting players down.

As I’m approaching word length I’d like to give a concrete example of a design choice that was guided by the emergent story design goal. Posthuman’s combat system uses oppositional die rolls on dice marked with particular outcomes. Combat dice can yield successful attacks, critical attacks, blocks and misses as well as a variable result that changes depending on the weapon being used or the enemy being faced.

The whole system would have been much easier if it were number based, both to design and explain. Instead I chose to make every dice rolled have both a functional and a story-based result and since the players’ dice interact with those of the opponent, the system encourages the creation of mental images with each roll, rather than just an addition of a set of numbers to determine an outcome. If for example I roll 3 block results and a critical attack and my opponent rolls a special representing a knock-down and 2 critical attacks, I envisage my character expertly blocking a series of savage attacks from the mutant in front of me, dodging the powerful blow that would have knocked me down then using my superior melee skill (I have a Melee stat of 4 versus the mutant’s 3 so I roll an extra melee die) to slice off his arm (or extremity of choice) with my critical hitting machete. In contrast, if I rolled a successful to-hit roll and then dealt damage, or I simply bested a number rolled by the mutant, I have an extra step to perform internally to create an image of the battle, and the system doesn’t tell me what happened, but just an overall outcome.

Needless to say, a designer cannot determine a player’s experience, they can merely encourage it. I am not claiming that anyone who plays the game falls into a trance of mutant-riddled hallucinations, but rather that every element in the game has been designed to encourage the generation of mental images that, when strung together form a unique story to the individual and group.

3. Reception

Posthuman had a very successful Kickstarter campaign selling 5300 copies and raising $340,000. The game received positive reviews, particularly in relation to its strong thematic and story generation potential and replayability. The first print run of the game consisted of 8500 copies, the majority of which went to distributors in the first month after printing.

Posthuman coverage:

Posthuman Review - with Board Game Corner

Posthuman Review - Undead Viking

Posthuman Final Thoughts - Rahdo Runs Through

Kickstarter Campaign Report - The Escapist Magazine

Posthuman Review - Miniature Market