Hi there! This is Julie, the Creative Writer for Zpocalypse. Ironically, I hit a writer’s block when it came to writing about writing, so I asked the team what they thought I should speak to for this blog. The response (thanks Zach!) was to address the specifics of the text on the cards. Many of the decks including Scavenging, Something’s Happening!, Survivor and Armory cards were wordier than most board games you find. We wanted to have an RPG feel within a board game format. The idea was to create story lines that were broad enough to encourage the players to imagine the wasteland fully, but not so involved that it was required to use them if you just wanted to go with the mechanics of the game and just kill some zombies. If that doesn’t seem tricky enough for you, read on!
Writing flavor text
If you are looking to write flavor text for your board game my advice to you is to keep it short! No, not really, although I am sure I felt that way during some points in the process; it does take a lot of time. If you’re going to be wordy, there are two things I strongly recommend – have a “voice” and know your audience.
The “voice” of the narration on our cards is one that is rather silly and sarcastic. This was to offset the fact that the game itself is intense and the theme could be depressing. Rather than take the 28 Days Later/Walking Dead/why-not-just-end-it-all-right-now approach, we went with more of a Shaun of the Dead meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer tone. This meant having a style of writing that needed to be consistent throughout. It was harder to have multiple writers for the cards because the tone was so specific. Many times I was given a Kickstarter update and simply asked to “Zpoc this, will you?”
The latter advice of knowing your audiences was a little more difficult for me to learn. A turning point for me was when I had a card where two Survivors sat down for a “palaver.” Now if you know what that means, you rock and I love you. However many on my team told me the word “palaver” was not in most people’s lexicon. I argued that using it would force them to LEARN the word. However after receiving MANY specific feedback papers telling me I may have made a typo since no one had ever seen the word palaver before, I changed the text. Now I know that there are many people out there who know this word, there are also some who do not. It is not my job to shame them into learning bigger words, it’s my job to create a world they can envision. I am also a teacher, so it was harder for me to let go of that part of myself. When I looked at it objectively I realized, there was no point writing a storyline if no one would read it.
When having a text heavy game we wanted to make sure that the game mechanics weren’t lost in the shuffle (pun intended.) Here are some of the techniques we used to make sure gamers will get the most out of our stories and still have smooth game play.
Make sure the location of text is consistent- our cards all have flavor text at the top and stats at the bottom. It seems simple, but when you have multiple people working on multiple cards styles something like that can get lost.
Keep the wording consistent. Again, you may think this sounds straightforward and simple. Unfortunately this is not as simple as it sounds. For example, in our game we settled on calling the people who lived through the initial wave of nuclear and zombie attack “Survivors.” Then I spent the next several months changing the rules, and other developer’s input of “people” “heroes” “team members” and so on.
Of course when it comes to editing we were a small few and even with the help of some tremendous grammar lawyers out there I still find mistakes. It hurts my eyeballs to read them. The more eyes you can have on your (mostly) final writing product, the less incorrect formatting, verb tense disagreement, spelling and generally silly mistakes you will have. We still have plenty, but certainly less than if it had been left solely to our overworked selves.
Finally there was the maddening and perpetual debate of using symbols versus using words. Our cards use symbols to represent the hit points, defense, smarts, movement firearms skill and melee skill stats for your Squad, as well as food, items, armory, survivors, zombies, zombie movement and die roll outcomes. Now imagine removing text every time you write the word “food” to replace it with the symbol on every card and in the rulebook. Imagine someone telling you they’ve changed their mind and please put them all back in. Imagine them changing their mind again. Whatever you decide, make it consistent commit to it early on. The pros of having the symbols is that it made the cross reference for all the cards consistent, as well as a visual for our gamers in other countries. The difficulty was staying consistent.
To add to the confusion
All of these things happened working within a collaboration. There were many eyes on all aspects of the game. This was wonderful because we revised and revisited things that did not work often. It was dreadful because we revised and revisited things that did not work often. Ricky spoke about that in his blog when he referenced “killing your babies.” If my many drafts came back to life from the graveyard of broken storylines, I would be a dead woman… or an undead woman. It was sometimes a painful upsetting process, but I do feel I am a better writer for it. I have character now. When you create something, even something that you think is terrific, it may not be right for the end product. You must let it go. You can go in a corner and sob quietly for a while, I will understand, but you must let it go.
Why do it?
So why did I subject myself to this grand experiment of making a storyline for a board game? Because a board game with great mechanics and no theme is just math. We wanted a terrific zombie game, not just terrific mechanics that took people around and around the board. I know Jeff worked hard on making the rules of the game work, but also he wanted them to fit into the theme of surviving a frighteningly intense landscape. I like to think I helped contribute to that aspect a great deal. It’s what takes a game from good to great. Those are the games I love to play and those are the games I want to be a part of.