I have a presentation coming up in July in Leeds. The panel is one I put together with a friend of mine in the UK on board game medievalisms. I am writing on the board game Shadows Over Camelot and how its treatment of women compares to medieval Arthurian texts, especially Le Morte Darthur.
Today, I intend to brainstorm some on my own presentation, stitching together images and text.
Kinds of Characters
The project started once I started reflecting on how different characters from Arthurian legend appeared in the game. They are all found in Sir Thomas Malory’s comprehensive fifteenth century work Le Morte Darthur in some form or another. All of the player characters are knights.
Merlin exists as both a card and (in the expansion) an independent figure who moves through the board according to certain rules.
All of the women exist only as cards to complicate or aid quests.
Just like that, the feminine subtext of Arthurian literature is translated into game form. Geraldine Heng‘s work in recovering a sense of feminine agency in Arthurian narrative had been made relevant again. What of these feminine characters, and the way in which they are framing and prompting the superficial actions of the game – the knights succeeding or failing on quests, the traitor dooming his comrades or being revealed by accusation?
One response might be to adapt Arthuriana into a game in a way that Marion Zimmer Bradley did with Mists of Avalon. What if the players were women? What if their goal was to support or thwart the quests going on around them? In other words, what if feminine agency were foregrounded instead of submerged?
I would be up for designing a game like that, but as I think about it, the game does something different from merely foregrounding characters. It foregrounds the quest as an apparatus for approaching problems in Arthurian literature. Both games would take the quest as a kind of center, right next to the actions taken to support or thwart its completion. Something changes when the processes take more of the foreground than the characters. I’m not sure what yet.
This is a term that has been stuck in my head for a few months. A Google search at this date confirms that I am not the originator of the term, but it has been used less than 50 times on the internet.
Partly the term comes from Ian Bogost’s work on “procedural rhetoric,” which involves studying what the systems, algorithms, and other generative procedures of video games say. It is an interpretive approach that starts with rules and moves to consider the fields of possibility that they generate. Monopoly is a common example, where its punishing model of finance drains money from players and quickly tilts in favor of players who possess key properties. No single rule defines the impoverishing logic of the game, which only becomes clear to players through play.
I am also thinking of strains of literary criticism that study allegory. C.S. Lewis’s history of allegory in The Allegory of Love is undoubtedly relevant here. Even so, I find Rosemond Tuve’s late work Allegorical Imagery; Some Mediaeval Books And Their Posterity (1966) compelling 50 years later because she approaches allegory as a kind of procedure. She wanted a model for understanding allegory that could distinguish between common perceptions of didactic allegory and the complex systems of interaction going on in Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, where no character was precisely the virtue or vice they were named after. (The Knight of Holinesse is not always faithful, nor the Knight of Temperance always temperate.) For Tuve, these characters are instead emulating a standard, imperfectly trying to perform it. They certainly play with more straightforward didactic forms of allegory, but with more space for deviation, wandering, and interaction.
Tuve captures what I’ve understood about allegorical works for a long time. They are not straightforward translations from one field of ideas to another. They are not isomorphic functions – A to X, B to Y. Broad, flexible rules encompass the characters of allegories (or allegorical-like romances). Her work is attentive to the interactions and relationships between characters and between works. It would only take a slight shift to reframe the rules and relationships of allegory into procedures.
My goal in understanding The Faerie Queene (or any other work) procedurally is not to encompass the whole work into a neat system, or even to put a bow around the contradictions that result. It is to understand how a work is an open system for interpretation, which is best understood through the interactions between pieces, through dynamic situations rather than ideal, closed forms.
Spaces of the Game
If I think about the game in terms of spaces rather than pieces, a geography of play begins to emerge that looks somewhat like the geography of medieval romance. The game lends itself to a more geographic metaphor; the core board puts the Round Table on one side, though its roundness and the space it takes up suggests its prominence in the game landscape.
On the edges are two frontiers, one blue and one green, representing the threats from the outside. Directly opposite the Round Table is the quest closest to the court in theme, the tournament with the Black Knight.
Most of the action also occurs through this board. Siege engines and cheery Saxons and Picts encroach upon the neat space of the board.
Cards – both white and black – are framed around Camelot. Combined, these endeavors form a center of which the Round Table is only the most important part.
Meanwhile, three other boards act as islands. These quests fit on a shifting periphery, subject to the size of the table and the eyes of the players. Each has a different design: one tranquil as a lake,
one reminiscent of the tournament but here detached from the court,
one uniquely golden and not representative of any physical space.
The Lady of the Lake, the Combat with Lancelot, the Grail Quest – each threads that at points are freely detached from the core Arthurian legend but which nonetheless help compose its decentered-but-central narrative of perpetual peril.
I’ll stop here for now, but these are some of the elements (material and otherwise) that I’m considering. The game has a geography. It has some form of allegory working through its application of rules. And these Arthurian threads are giving women a submerged form of agency, outside of the position of quest-player but still legible in play.
All photos are my own. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.