The following is a guest post from Daniel Bullard-Bates:
Daniel Bullard-Bates is a straight, white male with a liberal arts degree who identifies as a feminist and an ally. He works at the American Civil Liberties Union by day and writes fiction at night, and aspires to use his life and privilege to promote equality, protect freedom, and open minds. He previously wrote and edited Press Pause to Reflect, a blog about the social and artistic merits of video games.
I first heard of Diamond Trust of London in August 2009, when Jason Rohrer was kind enough to answer a few questions for my independent video game blog, Press Pause to Reflect. At the time there was very little information to go on. He said that he was working on a game for the Nintendo DS, and that it would be published by Majesco in 2010. Already this was exciting news. Rohrer is an independent video game developer who makes his games himself and publishes many of them online for free. He said at the time, “This is my first game that will be sold in a real box in real stores, so it’s an exciting project for me.” More intriguing, however, was the premise of Rohrer’s new game: “a two player strategy game about diamond trading in Angola on the eve of the passage of the Kimberly Process.”
Diamond Trust of London did not have an easy path to publication. Majesco dropped the project in 2010. For a time it looked as if Zoo would publish the game, but they decided that manufacturing the game would be too great of a financial risk. As if that weren’t enough, there was uncertainty as to whether Nintendo would allow the game to be published with Rohrer’s box art. But the rise of Kickstarter as a venue for funding video games offered another route to release. After I and over a thousand other individuals backed the project, six thousand copies of Diamond Trust of London were manufactured and sent to Jason Rohrer’s home, where he packaged and sent them out personally.
From the front cover alone, it’s clear that Jason Rohrer’s priorities as a game designer are far from ordinary. Instead of some splashy image designed to capture the attention, the cover image just looks like a bunch of dirt, a few rocks, and perhaps a speck of something that could be a diamond. Jason Rohrer and the game’s composer, Tom Bailey, both have their names prominently featured on the front cover of the game, and their pictures take up most of the back, in a style more reminiscent of an album cover than a video game.
The game itself is meant to be played by two players, but only one cartridge is required. The focus of the mechanics are on bribery, deception, and accumulation, but the game makes no overt moral statements. Using three agents, each player pays local guides to help them acquire diamonds, bribing enemy agents and UN inspectors to gain the advantage. Each player holds their own DS and inputs their commands simultaneously, with the results being displayed to both players at the same time.
If an enemy agent is bribed, the opposing player will see that agent’s intended actions and be able to change their own strategy to accommodate. But if they know their agent is bribed, they might be intentionally misleading the other player, causing them to commit agents and resources unnecessarily. And if the UN inspector is bribed by a player, that player can then choose where the inspector next travels, blocking the sale of diamonds and even confiscating them from enemy agents.
The game is very easy to learn and deceptively simple in both visual style and mechanics, but it continues to reveal complexity with continued play. I’ve been playing the game for about two months now with a friend of mine, and at first we both believed that control of the UN inspector was the most essential element of strategy in the game. Now our games have grown much more complex, as we attempt to manage cash flow, bribed agents, frequency of travel, and deciding whether to sell diamonds now for a temporary boost or save them for the final count. At the end of each game, which takes somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes, all that matters is who has the most diamonds. And more often than not, we both want to play one more round.
Diamond Trust of London is something entirely unique: a board game without a board, a DS cartridge game funded by players, and a singular vision from an independent video game designer. Your first game may take less than thirty minutes, but that’s only the beginning. All you need is one copy and a friend with a DS. Jason Rohrer sells the game and ships it himself, and you can find it here.