Liam Liwanag Burke on Dog Eat Dog
Liam Liwanag Burke recently launched a Kickstarter for Dog Eat Dog, “a game of colonialism and its consequences”. Liam was gracious enough to take the time to talk with me about his game. I’ll let our conversation speak for itself.
Giant Fire Breathing Robot: Hi Liam! So what is Dog Eat Dog about?
Liam Liwanag Burke: Haha, I’ve written so many summaries of Dog Eat Dog in the last few days. It’s a game about colonialism in the Pacific Islands; the players work together to describe a hypothetical island and the people on it, then play out its occupation and see what happens.
GFBR: From my read-through of the game, it seems like a really smart and biting commentary on colonialism and its effects. For example, one player plays the Occupation forces and characters, and the rest of the players play individual Natives. What’s the idea behind this? This particular division of roles, I mean.
Liam: Well, obviously one aspect is that the Occupation is often viewed in sort of a monolithic sense — the Man, if you will. So having one person run it provides that continuity of character. On another level, though, I wanted to harness the conventional RPG idea of one person being responsible for all the opposition — the GM. We all understand the idea of one person playing the “bad guys”, because we see it all the time in the games we already play. The big difference is that the Occupation has rules and responsibilities of their own to deal with.
GFBR: It also seems to me that, since there are more Native characters, it’s kind of a way to subvert the historical truth of the Occupiers writing history and having more of a voice. There are more Native main characters, so it seems maybe they have more of a voice than the Occupation?
Liam: Oh, that’s a good observation. Absolutely, one of the effects of having more Natives is that the story becomes more clearly about them and their actions and choices, instead of just being about the Occupation — although the Occupation is motivated to stick its nose in whenever they can justify it.
GFBR: And there are Rules to follow, as you mentioned earlier, created during the game based on the Occupation’s actions in scenes. The first Rule being “The Native people are inferior to the Occupation people”.
Liam: Yes. This is something I mention in my author’s notes — you can play the military or the church or big business or the Peace Corps, but the common thread is that colonization implies contempt for the colonized. It’s intrinsic to the interaction.
GFBR: And that’s what the game’s about in that it’s built into the system.
What led you to write this game? From your video on Kickstarter, it seems the subject is important to you both on a very personal level as well as a societal one.
Liam: Well, as I talked about, for a lot of my life (the majority of it, even), my mental image of myself was Caucasian. Basically the same person as I actually am, but, you know. Whiter. And it really wasn’t for twenty years or so that I started to realize that that was, well, dysmorphic, in a sense — that’s not really who I am, it’s a person I want to be.
And it was about that time that I started thinking about my mother. You know, my mother came from the Philippines with my dad, and she left behind all of her friends and family and took a job paying half of what she was making in a country that she didn’t really speak the language of that well, and part of this was to give her children the chance to grow up in America.
And what she gets for it is a son who doesn’t think of himself as Filipino.
Liam: So at a basic level, I wrote this game to answer the question to myself, of what happened to me, that I perceived myself the way that I did. Hopefully that’s not too dramatic!
GFBR: No, that’s fantastic. It’s truth. Your experience sounds similar to my wife’s, actually. She grew up between a Caucasian mother and a Chinese father, and didn’t begin to think of herself as Chinese until she went to college.
Liam: Oh yeah, totally. I remember getting to college from Hawaii — where most everybody’s half Asian — and I kept having this conversation that I’d never had before, where people would ask me, “So where are you from?”
And I’d be like, “Oh, Hawaii.”
And they’d say “Oh, you’re Hawaiian.”
And of course I’d have to be like “No, no, there are actual Native Hawaiians. I’m just a person who lived in Hawaii.”
And if they were really bent on it they’d say “Oh, so where are your parents from?”
Because obviously what they really wanted to ask is “So what RACE are you?” But they couldn’t just come out and say it!
Liam: The first time I told this story to my wife she was like, “Oh. That’s why my coworkers keep asking me about where you’re from.” So I guess it has a lot of levels, even.
GFBR: Yeah. There’s a lot to untangle, and it doesn’t always make sense. Here’s the thing, though: my wife’s excited about your game, and she doesn’t really play roleplaying games. Actually, I can think of a lot of my friends who grew up in contexts like this, but aren’t self-identified “roleplayers”, who would very much dig the concept of your game and would play it.
Is this the audience you had in mind when making the game? Or, a better way of asking that is probably: what audience did you have in mind when making Dog Eat Dog?
Liam: You know, when I originally wrote it, I didn’t have a specific audience in mind at all. I mostly just wanted to get the idea out, and see what happened. But at the first big playtest, at Kueicon, I remember people telling me, “I know such-and-such a person, and they don’t play roleplaying games, but I really think they’d love this.”
So from then on, during rewriting and such, yes, that was a key audience I tried to keep in mind: people who’d never played roleplaying games, but might be interested in this game because of its subject matter, or to use it as a teaching tool.
GFBR: And it takes less than an hour to play, right? Which is huge.
Liam: Yes. Another thing I didn’t anticipate! Because there’s a new Rule every scene, and you can potentially gain or lose as many tokens as there are Rules, the game accelerates every turn, so people start running out of tokens quickly and things start happening. I find that there’s usually a point, around the Occupation’s turn, that people look at their tokens, and the number of Rules, and start playing as if this is the climax, and of course when they do that, it generally is.
I think the longest game of this I played was probably about an hour ten or so.
GFBR: So let’s talk a little more about how Dog Eat Dog works. Players take turns setting scenes, and play happens pretty loosely in scenes, until there’s a Conflict: someone says something that someone else doesn’t want to have happen.
Liam: Yeah, it’s mostly free narration until people run into conflicts, although people often work hard to avoid getting into conflicts in the first place.
GFBR: Why do they do that?
Liam: Well, I think they see pretty clearly that conflicts with other Natives are probably just going to benefit the Occupation, and conflicts with the Occupation are more or less impossible to win if the Occupation wants to win badly enough. So the safest course is to try to do as much as you can without making the Occupation too angry.
GFBR: Okay. Because conflicts start with Negotiation, and if someone doesn’t like the compromise that comes out of that, they basically take it to the dice (Chance), and if someone still doesn’t like the outcome of that, it escalates to Fiat, where the Occupation just gets to decide what happens.
Liam: Exactly. So even if the Occupation decides to compromise, there’s always that sword of Damocles — they can just choose to win, if they want to. It’s not a negotiation from equal positions.
GFBR: Oh, right. So when a scene is over (decided by mutual agreement), and the Occupation was in that scene, there’s the Judgement.
Liam: Right. This is where the Occupation compares the Natives’ behavior in the scene to the Rules, and determines whether they followed them (and get a token) or broke them (and lose a token).
GFBR: So Natives are “rewarded” for following the unspoken assumptions about society that are codified into the Rules, and punished for not following them. What happens with a Native who decides to throw it in the Occupation’s face and not kowtow to any of the rules?
Liam: They run Amok, of course! If they keep breaking Rules to the point that they run out of tokens, they end up in a state where they get to win conflicts automatically instead of the Occupation. This is their opportunity to do what they’ve been wanting to do the whole game and really cause some trouble. Of course, when you run Amok, you have to die during your next scene — you can wreak some havoc, but you can’t do it and survive for long.
GFBR: That seems pretty intense. There’s no “winning” for the Natives. Once the game’s started, at least.
Liam: Well, I don’t think that’s quite true, but it’s tough. It’s definitely THEORETICALLY possible to throw the Occupation off the island without anybody dying or assimilating — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen. And obviously the Occupation doesn’t want to let you do it.
while I was doing some research for this game, I learned that Tonga is the only Pacific island where the monarchical government was never overthrown. So even in real life it was possible to get away without getting colonized — it was just very, very difficult!
GFBR: So in the end we see whether the Occupation stays, and whether the Natives are alive?
Liam: Yes, once enough people run out of tokens, you reach Endgame. At this point, everybody gets their own little epilogue, with the number of tokens they have determining what happens — if they have too many, they have to adopt the Occupation’s values as their own, but if they have too few, they end up wounded and embittered by the conflict. For the Occupation, if they’ve run out of tokens, they grant the island local autonomy.
At that point, based on the people who are still alive and have tokens, and what happened to them in their epilogues, you determine what happens to the island — whether enough people have assimilated so that they join voluntarily, whether the Natives have been more or less scoured off the island, or whether they manage to maintain their independence and return to self-governance.
GFBR: Everyone is affected. Very cool.
Liam: Absolutely. There’s no safety.
GFBR: Well, there’s a lot of other cool stuff in the game, but I don’t want to spoil it all for people (look out for how the Occupation player is chosen). You’re Kickstarting this, and by the time this article posts you’ll have likely met your goals. What are some of the rewards you’re offering?
Liam: Yeah, the reaction has really been more than I ever expected — thanks, everybody! In addition to copies of the game and PDFs, of course, I’m making customized dice and tokens for use in the game. The tokens will be full-color ceramic chips — I’m really excited for these, I think they’re going to look really good.
GFBR: You got me with the ceramic tokens. I couldn’t resist.
Liam: Nice! For the higher tiers we’ll be making some limited hardcovers, and for the real big spenders we’ve put together something special — the Box of Color (because the Red Box and the Blue Box were culturally insensitive).
GFBR: That’s awesome.
Liam: It’s going to be a wooden box with the logo stained into the top, with everything you could possibly want to play the game — tokens, dice, a hardcover, a softcover, a bunch of PDFs, and my mother’s recipe for chicken sinigang. Which is not technically required to play the game, but is delicious.
I didn’t think we would be able to pull these off at first, but luckily for me, my father-in-law used to be a sign maker, so we’ll get to make them at a price that won’t break the bank entirely.
GFBR: Sweet. I look forward to seeing what those look like! Anything else you want to talk about, Liam?
Liam: No, I think we’ve covered most everything. I hope I didn’t go off on too many tangents! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me about this, and thanks for your support with the Kickstarter.
GFBR: Totally. Dog Eat Dog is really exciting, as a fun game and as art with something to say about the world. I hope it’s a huge success.
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