A Dark Idea of Fun: Turning the Salem Witch Trials Into a Board Game For the Whole Family
By Leon Neyfakh
Earlier this year, I wrote a story for Ideas about the surprisingly vibrant world of contemporary board game design. While the rest of us suffer through Monopoly and spend evenings playing Scrabble for the millionth time, a subculture of gamers are entertaining themselves instead with elegant, structurally innovative titles that most of us have never heard of. The people who make these games are driven by a curiosity about the mechanics of fun, and the possibilities of conjuring it with a piece of cardboard, a few pieces, and maybe a pair of dice.
One of the things I didn’t get into in my original story was the challenge of matching the theme of the game with the way it’s actually played. Ideally, I was told, the decisions a player is asked to make during a turn somehow draw on the reality of whatever the game is supposed to be about. In other words, a game about pirates should probably include a battle over booty, while a game about politics should probably feature some kind of election. With that in mind, I was very curious to hear about a new game called Salem, designed by a former Bostonian named Joshua Balvin and themed around the Salem witch trials. The game, which Balvin is raising money to produce through Kickstarter, throws players into the midst of the four month-period when, as the story goes, residents of the town of Salem, Massachusetts turned on one another and started killing people they suspected of being possessed.
I interviewed Balvin over email about how the game works, and how he went about marrying the gameplay to the story of what really happened in Salem. (Our exchange was edited very slightly for publication.)
IDEAS: Tell me what aspects of the Salem witch trials you're trying to capture in this game. What did you decide were the crucial dynamics to represent?
BALVIN: The most important dynamic I wanted to capture was to place the players in Salem in 1692. This meant recreating the paranoia that there are witches among us, the fear that you might be next, and the mob-mentality that led to the loss of 20 lives during the summer of 1692. To accomplish this there are 42 residents in the game (based on actual citizens of Salem, selected following extensive research) whose stories unfold over the course of the game. Each player gets six of these residents. Some of each player's residents are secretly identified as witches and it is up to the other players to jail, accuse and hang them. When a resident is hanged, a short synopsis is given of the real-life fate of that person in 1692.
IDEAS: What about the history did you find most difficult to incorporate into the game play?
BALVIN: The game takes place over four rounds representing the actual months of the trials, punctuated by hangings corresponding to the exact dates of the hangings in Salem. I eventually had to give up that the exact number of residents hanged at each of these dates would match history (the fundamental priority is an exciting game and there was simply no way to have this work without disrupting the flow of the game). That was the only real compromise that was made to the historical narrative of the game.
IDEAS: What's the coolest or most interesting decision players have to make when they're playing Salem, and how does it connect to the history?
Players are the judge, jury and executioner. The most interesting decision comes at the end of each witch trial when players must use the information they've acquired during the witch hunt to decide which of the jailed residents they would like to see hanged. The tension is always palpable as you're hoping you've payed close enough attention to get it right. Ballots are cast in secret and revealed simultaneously so each round ends with surprises. This ties in historically with the conundrum these people faced: do I accuse someone else to save my life, or do I die an honest person?
IDEAS: Did you come up with any original game mechanics when designing the structure of the game, or would you say this is an amalgamation of existing mechanics?
BALVIN: While there has been some inspiration from other games (Black Vienna and The Resistance to name a few), none of the inspirations made it into Salem intact. It's taken 6 years to create this game mostly because I simply refused to compromise the historical narrative for the sake of game play and visa versa. 6 years is an extraordinarily long time to spend on any board game, but the final result was well worth fighting for.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.