Can a game capture an emotion or desire?
With Inner Compass, players navigate the turbulent world of their feelings to achieve their life goals. We talk to the designers about boarding an emotional rollercoaster.
Life, it has often been remarked, is complicated. To quote Rick and Morty’s venerable Mr. Meeseeks, many people often find themselves “born into this world, fumbling for meaning”, with no clear conception of what their purpose is or what they want out of their oh-so-fleeting existence. How a life should be lived is something that has been pondered over for millennia by philosophers. What can one do when faced with this vast existential quandary? Why, make a game about it, of course!
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT, ANYWAY?
The purpose of Inner Compass is to find and ultimately achieve your personal life goals, all before the other players do. The game comes to the tabletop courtesy of Asger Granerud and Daniel Pedersen, a veteran game designing duo behind titles like Deep Blue, Copenhagen and Bloomtown, amongst others. Fittingly enough for a game about journeys, their partnership in boardgames design began as a result of a car trip back from a games convention. The two had first met through a shared interest in climbing (“we’re in Denmark,” explains Granerud, “where the highest place is a hill 170 metres above sea level – so we opted for indoor climbing!”), though they decided to work together after returning from Essen 2013. The two had travelled to the convention to show off their own designs independently, but ended up sharing a car ride on the way back. To pass the time (and to keep each other awake behind the wheel) they started spitballing ideas for a game, an exercise that eventually resulted in their first published collaborative title, 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. Several projects later, and the pair came across the basic idea that would become Inner Compass. For this, they started from a mechanical rather than a thematic standpoint.
“We’d been looking for the right theme for the game right from when we started working on it almost three years ago,” says Pedersen. “But the basic idea was a gameplay mechanic where you had a deck of cards and you put it around the points of a compass. You’d move around the landscape, so if you moved North, you’d pick the card in that direction, and you’d have to react and work around the directions of the compass all the time.”
With this core concept in mind, Pedersen and Granerud went about trying to find a theme that would match the mechanics. They went through several iterations where they tried to have the player being guided around the board. It was only when they stumbled across the idea of inverting this and having the player’s character serve as the guiding force that Inner Compass began to take shape.
“We [initially] tried to make a sort of standardised Euro-trading game or something set in the Mediterranean where you were trading spices in the 1600s. But it really didn’t grab us as it was all very abstract. Then we had this idea about trading posts, and another one involving magic winds where you were sort of walking around a magical landscape.
We were always trying to work out what it was in the compass that was pulling you around. And we realised we were always looking for something outside of the person that pulled them around. With an inner compass, it’s what’s in yourself and that makes sense, right? Because what you experience in the game is that you have a plan and you want to go certain directions on the board, but then your compass changes, so you’ve got a sort of push and pull thing happening.”
With the theme established the rest of the mechanics quickly fell into place. The basic objective of Inner Compass is to reach personal enlightenment before another player. The main gameboard consists of four randomly assembled tiles comprised of a number of coloured squares. Each player (represented by a simple head- shaped meeple) can move orthogonally around the board. Their movement corresponds to the aforementioned ‘compass’ of cards – a deck in the middle, with single cards drawn from the top of the deck and placed at each point – north, south, east and west. Moving in a given direction allows a player to draw a card from the corresponding point. The cards are coloured to match spaces on the board, and can be one of five colours.
Originally, these cards were going to represent valuable material goods, but as Pedersen and Granerud developed the theme the cards came to represent different emotions – fear, anger, love, happiness and sadness. As a player gains cards, they can trade them in for points. The number of points the player scores is reliant on a descending chain of value, worth six points at the top and only one point at the bottom. Numbered and coloured chits occupy each space on the chain, with each chit showing which type of card (and how many cards of that type) can be handed in.
The amount of points a card is worth depends on where the chit stands in the chain. This chain operates on a simple market system of supply and demand – when cards are ‘cashed in’ the chit decreases in value, moving to the bottom of the chain as the others move up a square. Since players are competing against one another, timing when you cash in the cards becomes essential for winning the most points.
On their own, the mechanics create a rather dry system of value ideally suited to some of the market and trading ideas Pedersen and Granerud originally had in the early stages of development. But in Inner Compass this has been transformed into a metaphor for going about life, representing the conflict between the necessity of behaving appropriately in society and the fundamental human desire to act on emotion.
“You have to express your emotions at the right time to claim the rewards,” explains Granerud. “At the same time, you have a limit to [the cards in] your hand. So eventually emotions will build up in you and you will have to express them!”
The game also captures another one of life’s struggles; that between trying to achieve short-term and long-term goals. Each player has a memory board which contains a number of colour-coded memories that correspond to a particular feeling. Each memory has a token on top of it, and players can place a token on the main gameboard where they’ve landed, matching a memory to the emotional colour on the board. When players manage to put all the tokens from a row or column of memories onto the board, they get to claim
a space on a scoreboard, gaining enlightenment. The enlightenment scoreboard is comprised of a set of randomised cards that award different points depending on how memories have been imprinted on the main board.
The Solitude card, for example, gives points to players who manage to imprint a single memory on one of the gameboard’s four corners. Importantly, players who achieve the objectives of one of the cards first receive the most points – those who come in second have to settle for less.
The result of the above mechanics is that the game becomes a trade-off between quickly nabbing and trading in emotion cards, and the longer-term goals of creating and imprinting specific memories in specific patterns. Moreover, since both the points awarded for expressing emotions and those for achieving personal growth through fulfilling enlightenment objectives change throughout the game depending on what other players are doing, Inner Compass further increases the player’s dilemma by adding an element of opportunism.
“It’s tactical in that changes happen from round to round, which will pull you away from what your life goal [i.e. personal enlightenment objective] would have been,” explains Granerud. “So you’re not travelling along one line from start to finish, where you have a plan and that’s where you’re going. Sometimes you’ll get pulled away from your life goal by one emotion or another.” Sound familiar at all?
CARDS ON THE TABLE
Inner Compass uses its mechanics to simulate the realities of life. It’s uncertain, with ever-changing priorities and the constant conflict each of us faces between the here and now and our future selves. By playing on its central concept of a compass, it shows us how our journeys – both physical and internal – are guided primarily not by logic but by feelings and memories. But Pedersen and Granerud are the first to admit that Inner Compass doesn’t capture the full complexities of existence.
“Inner Compass is a game where you are navigating your emotions,” says Granerud. “But to accept the premise of the theme, you have to accept that there are some abstractions happening towards the questions of what is feeling, what is an inner compass, et cetera.”
First and foremost, Inner Compass has been designed as a game, rather than an exercise in mindfulness.
“The game is [a means of ] entertainment, so it’s not a tough choice for the players to sit down and play it,” says Granerud. “You don’t have to actually know what your inner compass tells you in order to play it!”
Nonetheless, the designers hope that Inner Compass will be able to get its players talking about the themes it dwells on in a way that they might not have done before playing it.
“Hopefully this will appeal to family gamers and Euro gamers who want to have a good, clean, solid game that plays in 45 to 60 minutes, but who also aren’t afraid of having a game with a theme that’s slightly off the beaten track or is even just a good conversation starter with their friends,” says Granerud.
“Hopefully it is a game that can make people talk about these things, even if it’s just a superficial conversation here and there about their life goals and emotions. Even if they totally forget about it afterwards, players will have just had that little sort of interaction that they wouldn’t have had before. That’s our hope, anyway.”
Words by James Winspear
This review originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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