Cards against the Library

March 26th, 2014 By Lucy Schrader

The Best Card

EDUCATED MONKEYS may not be the most powerful card in The Battle Times, but it’s the best. Because they make more than cabinet ministers.

'Educated monkeys' card, using an article about using monkeys for entertainment. It has 6 attack and 6 health.
See the EDUCATED MONKEYS card, its source article, and transcript.

Thanks to this hot new collectable card game, we’ll soon know for sure if the Grey River Argus is better than the West Coast Times, if DOG BITES MAN wins out over MAN BITES DOG.

With a handy card builder application, now available online, you can build a playable deck out of any two terms. Using DigitalNZ’s api, the app goes and finds those terms in Papers Past, transforming articles into cards of varying health and power. Print a deck, and you’re in for a fast and deep game of competitive heritage.

It was built out of digitised newspapers, a life of gaming, and a long series of obsessions.

Messing around for education

Greig Roulston is one of our Digitisation Advisors, and the developer of The Battle Times. He’s digitised piles of heritage materials, and did a ton of the work in making these books available for download.

Since starting here, he’s been thrown into the mass of collection materials, and developed a string of obsessions with particular collections and historic events. One day he hopes to render the 1940 Centennial Exhibition in 3D, perhaps even in Minecraft.

That’s taught him the value of putting stuff in front of people. It’s given him opportunities to learn and get passionate that he’d never had before, and it made him wonder how to do the same for others. He’s living proof that serendipitous exposure can generate the same enthusiasm and curiosity as directed research. In the games he plays, and the metagaming that surrounds them, he’s found all kinds of parallels with the work he does now in the Library.

The game…

Greig’s obsessions have spurred his learning, and he’s hoping the game will do the same for others. Educational games don’t have the best reputation, mainly because so many of them aren’t any fun. The Battle Times is meant to be played first and foremost, and he believes that the theming of the cards and the activities surrounding play will provide the seeds of enthusiasm he knows so well.

A hand holding five Battle Times cards.
Photo by Emerson Vandy.

Though transformed, our digitised newspaper articles are the cards – the headline and text are the thing being played, and Greig sees them as one of the ways people might find their own Centennial Exhibition obsession. The card’s stats come from the search terms – more or less, the number of times the word appears in the article divided by its length. The first is the card’s attack power, the second is its health, and these are used in the game’s core interaction.

The game’s pretty simple. From their deck of cards, each player draws five. Player one plays a card, which shows its attack and health. Player two can now respond with a card from their own hand. If one’s attack is higher than the other’s health, it’s a hit. Get a hit without being hit back and you’ve won the round, and the loser loses one of their nine lives.

If both hit, the second player has parried, and gets to play another card, forcing another exchange. This can turn into a back and forth that empties both players' hands, making them draw straight from the top of their decks until someone scores.

And the metagame

The metagame – the things players do that relate to the game, but which exist outside the systems of the game itself – provides players with many of the possible pathways into the collections. The games that inspire The Battle Times have deep and detailed metagames, which require careful and dedicated work by the players.

World of Warcraft players have built up a massive infrastructure to aid the metagame, including wikis of information about objects, ways to view statistics and equipment combinations, records of stories that have taken place in the game world, and more. When new content is added to the game players get to work scraping the additions, populating the wikis, and creating scripts that work out the rates items are found.

In effect, WoW players are performing some pretty complicated research and analysis, using very modern tools. As collection digitisation continues, similar tools can be applied to heritage collections.

Magic: The Gathering is another of Greig’s favourites. Like with WoW, stats are tracked, combinations are analysed, but it gets expensive fast, as you buy more and more random booster packs, hoping for the exact card that fits your deck or lets you perfect your strategy.

The game’s main audience skews younger, so they have far more time than money. A free or cheap version that allowed them to advance by investing their time might suit them better. What if players were looking forward to new Papers Past releases? What if those research skills and available time were pointed at newspaper archives?

These kinds of skills, and others learned on the WoW or Magic clock, helped Greig get his job in the first place – dealing with large amounts of data, thinking structurally, leadership, and more. He says there’s no reason other players couldn’t transfer their research and technical skills to find great Battle Times cards, or research and script to other ends.

Making cards, making rules

Players making their own cards is part the metagame, and an easy way to get interested in researching, learning, and hanging out for new Papers Past releases. Picking out the right search terms to create a good deck means getting familiar with the digitised newspapers, and repeated use gives you at least a sense of what’s in the corpus and what’s not.

Like Cards Against Humanity, The Battle Times will be built for open use and community adaptation. The card builder, a web front end for the application that searches through Papers Past, sorts out the numbers, and crafts the card images, is free to use and you’ll soon be able to export the card data as json or a printable pdf. Printing a couple of usable decks yourself should only cost around $5.

The official ruleset is light, so the community can devise their own modifiers, house rules, and preferred balance. If people want to blow each other out of the water with overpowered cards, kaiju versus jaeger style, that’s up to you. Or you may prefer a more subtle game at the lower end, where a single point can make all the difference.

The light-handed rules allow for quick and surprisingly deep play. Parrying on a draw makes it more than just a matter of who has the highest number, leading to strategic sacrifices of cards, ongoing volleys, and surprising turnarounds. As I play more rounds, I can see myself getting attached to THE TREE AND THE MILLIONAIRE for getting me out of jams, or MISS PHYLLIS BROWN for scoring a near-certain hit.

Street Researcher III: Alpha Omega Strike Ex: Anthology

Still coming is an online play environment, where The Battle Times shows its last major inspiration. Street Fighter II was Greig’s first experience of a metagame. There was the experience of play itself, but it rapidly expanded into the experience of the arcade, tracking down magazines with move lists, and strategising with (and against) friends.

SFII also pleases Greig’s design sensibilities. Unlike a lot of games, each part of the design supports the direction of the whole, without perfunctory or flashy elements that distract from the game.

The online play interface is going to draw heavily on SFII’s classic look, emphasising an expectation of fast combat and multiple rounds, but it’s also a reminder to Greig that nothing matters more than the player’s experience.

Mockup of an online interface for the Battle Times, showing Alexander Turnbull versus Donald McLean.
Mockup of the online play interface, by Greig Roulston.

Online play gives Greig some opportunities to try expanding the game design. Temporary modifiers that use complex maths? A roster of characters that bring their own special abilities? Leagues of competitive play all around the world?

All in all, Greig’s modest about what he thinks The Battle Times will accomplish. He’ll consider it a success if it’s followed by other games built with heritage materials. I say, how can you go past a game that lets you build your own Street Fighter deck? Or a Final Fantasy one? Or a Tomb Raider one? Or a Mario Brothers one? Or a Monkey Island one…

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