Meeting of Minds – Jessica Metheringham, Dissent Games
One of my core aims with The Giant Brain is to promote designers, creators and publishers in the UK gaming scene. This series of articles interviews various folks from across the UK tabletop gaming scene to get an insight into their games, their thoughts on current events in the industry and anything else that pops into my head. I hope you enjoy it.
With a background in activism and campaigning Jessica Metheringham set up Dissent Games to publish Disarm the Base, a co-operative game about neutralising weapons on a military base. Her latest game Library Labyrinth, which completed a successful Kickstarter campaign in March 2022, highlights famous fictional and historical women and was inspired by an event that Jessica helped run at the UK Houses of Parliament. Jessica was kind enough to take some time out of her schedule to chat to me about her campaigning background, how it inspired Disarm the Base, educational uses for games, and the challenges facing publishers.
Dissent games is registered as a non-profit organisation. How does that affect the projects you take on and the games you put out?
I come from a campaigning background – by which I mean political and social justice campaigning, rather than in a board gaming sense. Dissent Games is firmly rooted in that world, and so it’s following that “message first” approach. We made the company official when we were creating our game Disarm the Base, and the idea that it would be a company limited by guarantee rather than by shares seemed instinctive. There are now more people involved than just me, and we all share that sense that our output will have something of an edge to it.
The first product Dissent Games put out, Disarm the Base, was a cooperative game about neutralising weapons on a military base. How did that game come about and what made you want to get into the world of tabletop game design?
A colleague of mine broke into a military base, and I realised it would be a great theme for a game. In 2017 I was working as parliamentary engagement for Quakers in Britain (a liberal church in the UK) and one of my colleagues was on trial for a direct action involving trying to disarm war planes. When the news came that he’d been acquitted, there was this massive cheer round the office. I spoke to him in depth about what actually happened, and many of those details made it into Disarm the Base.
I think that the idea to make it into a board game, rather than another creative outlet, was because I was thinking about how interesting it would be to create a game. I’ve been a gamer myself since university, which is now about 20 years ago…and before that I played a lot of card games. The theme of sneaking into the base and searching for the weapons was just so perfect that the game mechanics formed fairly easily around it. I playtested with peace campaigners, and that certainly contributed to the authentic feel of the game.
And I feel that games are so interesting – there’s so much we can take away from games! It’s just such a full and complex way to come at a subject. If you’re looking at a painting, it’s generally a visual experience…but a game is a little bit of lots of things. It’s the artwork, and the interaction, and the different scenarios which can play out. The way that a game can hold a theme is just fascinating.
Every designer approaches their games differently. For you do you find that theme is the first port of call in a design? How do you marry mechanisms and themes during the development process?
It’s a real chicken and egg situation as to which comes first – but certainly with my games the two tend to progress together! Wherever the initial spark comes from, it needs to be rounded out pretty quickly. That means that a theme needs mechanics which fit it, and that mechanics must be doing something which thematically makes sense.
With my larger games I have generally had the theme spark of inspiration first, but with smaller games it’s often been the mechanics. One of the games I’m working on at the moment is about removing plastic from the ocean. It started as a greetings card, and the initial idea was about rolling dice and things moving round a grid. Roll a 2 and the counters go up, roll a 4 and they go down, roll a 6 and they spin round in a circle. I thought that was a neat little trick, but I didn’t feel able to progress any further until I’d decided what the counters represented. Once I had established what the overarching theme was then I could consider what people would do in real life. Would they build boats first and get the plastic bottles in the water, or concentrate on the plastic rubbish on the beach first? Would they try to recruit others? And these go back to mechanics, in the sense that I then need to consider whether the boats stay out in the ocean and how often the ocean current moves the pieces of plastic around the board.
Finding the right theme means that I can get a little further, but then of course I need to go back to the mechanics! It’s like dancing – if the mechanics represent the right foot then the theme represents the left foot. It’s possible to hop along with only one foot for a while, and occasionally you’ll take bigger steps with on than the other, but over the course of the dance you’ll need both feet, many times, and usually one after the other.
Library Labyrinth, which Dissent Games recently funded on Kickstarter, has an educational theme with regards to its inclusion of historical and fictional women. What do you hope players take away from this game when they play it?
I hope that players want to know more about the characters! Library Labyrinth is a family-weight cooperative game. You’re trapped in a cursed library, and literary terrors are escaping from the books – there’s Dracula round the corner, the Kraken behind you, and various other scary things just waiting to be uncovered! Your task is to find six magical books and fill each with a captured literary monster. Like many cooperative games, you’re racing against time as the curse fights back. The board is a five by five grid of octagonal tiles, and each tile can flip or rotate. It’s got a lot of the feel of a dungeon crawler, while actually being more of a set collection, pick-up-and-deliver game.
With Library Labyrinth, we’ve been really careful to prioritise the fun above any message. It’s a game first and foremost. However, I’d be disappointed if players didn’t finish the game with a bit of curiosity about some of the characters. Some of them are characters most people will be familiar with, such as Alice in Wonderland, Ada Lovelace, Harriet Tubman, the Queen of Sheba. But I’m pretty sure that everyone will find people they’re never heard of before, and if that inspires them to go find out more then our job is done!
Your background is in activism and campaigning. What lessons do you think you can teach people through the medium of games?
I think games are a great medium for learning – and that’s not just because learning is easier when it’s fun. Often it’s something really simple. I think cooperative games such as Pandemic have helped me to value other people’s skill and to work better as a team. Spirit Island gives players a welcome nudge about outside invaders destroying natural resources. Flashpoint regularly reminds me to check the batteries in my smoke alarms.
I’ve run quite a lot of workshops about engaging with politicians (generally UK, and generally Westminster – that’s what I know best) and one of the techniques I’ve used is to get people to fill in a character sheet for their Member of Parliament. It’s as if they’re setting up a new Boss Monster to be defeated, except that instead of setting the strength or stamina, it’s qualities to do with negotiation and persuasion. How stubborn is the MP? Are they a details person or a big picture person? Are they susceptible to an argument using numbers? It’s brilliant how much useful political campaign planning you can do if you treat the encounter like a TTRPG!
Overall, I’d argue that there are two ways in which games can provide lessons. The first way is through the theme – whether that is the early days of the postal service in Germany, different breeds of dogs, or major cities in Europe. The second way is via the mechanics, and that covers everything from basic probabilities to auctions to effective negotiation with other players. Almost every game is teaching you something!
Your future plans for Dissent Games include products with a smaller physical footprint. How do you think the global shipping problems have affected the size of games that companies are looking to put out?
Shipping is definitely a big issue at the moment, and it seems as though prices aren’t likely to fall any time soon. Manufacturing closer to home would be brilliant – but I know that in the UK that’s really tricky, as some parts simply aren’t available here at any cost. Smaller games are certainly a way to mitigate some of these issues, and many publishers and designers seem to be going for smaller boxes. Economically and environmentally it just makes more sense.
I’m also doing a lot of greetings card games. That’s exactly what it sounds like – a game on the front of a greetings card. I brought out some last year for Christmas, and they were fabulous! There’s a picture on the front and the rules fit on the back. It’s a real challenge to design something which is simple enough to be explained in just a few paragraphs, attractive enough to be the front of a birthday card, and doesn’t ask players to find too many components.
One thing I really love about the greetings card games is the small environmental footprint. The cards are printed on a mix of recycled and FSC-certified uncoated 350gsm card with a colourful paper envelope and a biodegradable cello wrapper. They ask the players to find a few simple components, such as pencils, counters, or six-sided dice. And because they are just cards, they can be sent through the post cheaply! I’m a really big fan of making everyday things into games, and I love how putting games on greetings cards means that the games are more easily sent and shared.
There seems to be a push in game publication just now to be more considerate of the environmental impacts of our hobby. What do you hope the future holds for ecological considerations in game publishing and design?
I’m so glad that environmental impact is something board game publishers are considering. Obviously games differ so much, and it’s overly complex. I’d like to see recycled cardboard being the norm – particularly when it’s the box or tiles, where the majority of the board is covered with printed paper and so never seen.
I’d like it to be simpler and/or easier to navigate. For example, there are two systems at the moment for sustainable card and wood. One is FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council) and is best known globally, particularly in the US and UK. The other is PEFC (Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) and I believe it is more common in Germany. The requirements are similar, although I think that PEFC can take into account where the forest is in the world. Regardless of which people use, if the games of the future start being made of recycled or sustainable card, that would be a huge step forward.
Shrink wrap is an issue – although I can see a real use for it on the outside of games. However, shrink on decks of cards is certainly something we can change, and when we print Library Labyrinth it will have paper bands on the decks. We’re not having an insert, but putting in a cloth bag to keep the meeples and tiles in one place.
I’d also like it to be easier to get boxes made in the UK. I got all my prototypes made by Rob Butler at Dice Sports, but he’s the only person I know making boxes suitable for games. I love the fact that I can design a greetings card, write up the rules, and send the PDFs off, and the finished product is with me less than a week later. It is brilliant in terms of time, cost, and shipping emissions.
What game, you aren’t designing, are you most excited about right now?
I am really looking forward to Earth Rising, by Stop Drop & Roll. It’s a game about combating climate change, and so I am obviously very excited about the theme! I will certainly be buying the next small card game Bez comes up with, as I find her Bezzy Bargain Bags are really good as presents.