Writing for A Steampunk Universe

As the creative writer for Heavy Steam, I am the creator of an entire world. Does that sound amazingly awesome to you? It did to me, but then I had to put in the work. You know what Uncle Ben said about having great power? He wasn’t wrong. Read on to hear about it.


I attended PAX East 2013, and was lucky enough to play a few of the unpublished games developers brought for us to look at. However, I did not get to play the mech game a designer named Scott had brought to show us. After PAX I heard Jeff and Zach talk about how much fun it was, what a great idea it would be to publish… all it needed was a theme. “I’m thinking steampunk,” Jeff said. “Julie?”

Immediately I had to play the game so that I would know what I was writing for. We had a game session, and I really loved the elegance of the mechanics, even in that early session. I’m a fan of Flash Point and Pandemic, so I really appreciate when a resource management game has a theme that reflects the mechanics.

As for making our mechs work in a steampunk universe, you have to first understand the underlying fact of steampunk. In the world of steampunk, there’s a pivotal moment when the reality as we know it shifts from our timeline to the alternate one that takes us to a universe that could have happened.

To brainstorm what that shift was I turned to Zach. He is my first resource for throwing out ideas and thinking about the ramifications of them in a quick-think-aloud-no-idea-is-sacred kind of way. It makes for some intense conversations. We have created and destroyed several cosmos in the blink of an eye at this point. I wanted an energy/matter source that would redefine the industrial revolution. Zach posed the idea that for it to have impact in a timely fashion; our pivotal moment should take place around the time of the American Revolution. Then he threw out this postulation, “I would love it if North America blew up from a comet and just destroyed it.”

There it was: my reason for having a new element introduced, and the cause for a monumental shift in history. With no United States to become a heavy hitter during the industrial revolution, what might have happened? Little did I know what I was getting myself into.


Then began the dark days…. When writing for Zpocalypse my research involved re-watching Night of the Living Dead, and re-reading The Walking Dead. Even the CDC videos about preparing for a “zombie attack” are geared towards making kids aware of how disease spreads. Watching them is helpful and fun at the same time. Nothing prepared me for the hours upon hours of researching the European Industrial Revolution.

I love history, I really do. Also, I am a firm believer in filling your brain with as much information as you can so that your tank is always full for writing. However, I can say that the weeks of time I spent, reading the biographies of minor players in history, who could have become major players in our alternate history were not the best weeks of my life.

Why? For one thing, there is no visible output for the rest of the company to see.  I knew they realized I was working, but it’s hard to quantify. I feel for wizards. All that studying over a tiny candle in the wee hours of the night for that one firebolt… is it really worth it?

For another, you get a lot of eye rolling when someone casually names something a “Gatling Gun” and you freak out because that American inventor was never born.

Nevertheless, research is a necessary evil. It’s vital to the process if you are going to make an alternate history. History is no joke, it’s a complex tapestry of the lives of humanity, and “winging it” makes for terrible writing. I know because I have written some, and read others. However, finally I had a rough draft of a timeline. The first part of which can be seen on our BGG forums here. Go look, and comment at will.

Whose eyes are on this?

Once I (finally) was able to start writing, I needed feedback. Writing in a bubble is lovely. You can create lots of fun words all thrown together without interruption. It does not help you grow as a writer. It’s a painful lesson I have to relearn all the time. However, I do like to have feedback one critique at a time. For each project I pick specific people. This time, my go-to person was ‎Neil Remiesiewicz, the primary writer for Hull Breach! If you don’t know Hull Breach, it’s a sci-fy card game where you play different factions vying for power using your military bases and ships manned with marines out in space. The man knows a little something about alternate storylines with a military focus. He’s also an awesome writer.

Every time he had a comment that started with “Military Rant:” I breathed a sigh of relief. As a military history buff, I knew he would see things I would not. It also meant when showing my writing to the team after, I felt FAR more confident yelling at them for the Gatling Gun.

Writing Flavor Text for Zpocalypse Cards

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.