INTERVIEW: Alf Seegert Takes the Road to Canterbury

Alf Seegert and friend playing Road to Canterbury

I don’t recall when I first heard about The Road to Canterbury, but I knew I had to have it. I’m a huge fans of Middle English literature in general and Chaucer in particular, and was a member of the New Chaucer Society for a time. There’s something in the strange beauty of the language, at once alien and familiar, that makes Middle English remarkably appealing. The Canterbury Tales in particular pulse with life and meaning, capturing a huge range of styles and emotions from highly cultivated to utterly base. (If the language is a real obstacle for you, just pick up a decent translation, such as David Wright’s from Oxford World Classics rather than the newer one from Burton Raffel. It’s worth taking the time to learn the original language, but if it’s between a translation and nothing, then read a translation.)

Regular readers of SOP will know that I’ve covered the game several times since I first learned about it, but I like to have a number of plays before I commit to a final review. Short version: it’s very good! A longer version will have to wait until it gets to the table at least one or two more times.

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with designer Alf Seegert (and by “sit down” I mean that we were both sitting at our computers at opposite ends of the country doing an email interview) to talk about his career and his latest game.

Alf’s first two games, Bridge Troll (Z-Man games, $25) and Trollhalla (Z-Man Games, $50), each made the Games 100, and his newest game, The Road to Canterbury (Eagle Games, $60) is heading for the list as well., Seegert, a professor of English at the University of Utah, started designing game 10 years ago, and five of his early designs were finalists at the annual Hippodice board game design competition in Bochum, Germany: The Vapors of Delphi (2nd place, 2004), Bridge Troll (end-round finalist, 2005 — later published by Z-Man Games), Ziggurat (end-round finalist, 2005), Mont-Saint Michel (end-round “Recommended Title,” 2007), and TEMBO (3rd place, 2008 — later published by Z-Man Games as Trollhalla). With Road to Canterbury, Seegert finally gets to merge his love of literature with his love of gaming, offering a unique take on Chaucer’s famous tales of garrulous pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

Give us a bit of your gamer biography. What genres and styles have appealed to you throughout your life?

I didn’t become completely captivated by games until I was a teenager, when fantasy role-playing systems like Dungeons & Dragons and Tunnels & Trolls became a safe-haven for me. I loved Milton Bradley’s electronic board game Dark Tower and in ninth grade I programmed a version of it into the high school mainframe computer (I used little monochrome ASCII characters to represent each player, the Tombs, the Bazaar, etc.). But except for an occasional session of the fantasy game Talisman, I didn’t play many board games again until I hit thirty. I was spending a lot of time by myself playing computer games–and my girlfriend (now my wife) wanted me to play games with her instead. We did some research and stumbled on The Settlers of Catan, which proved a potent gateway drug into the brave new world (well, new to us) of Eurogames. Once we introduced Catan to our friends, Saturday nights quickly became a regular and much-anticipated “game night” event, which has continued now for over ten years.

What prompted you to make the leap from player to designer?

After encountering the brave new world of Eurogames, it wasn’t long before I felt compelled to take themes that interested me and make board games out of them. Sometimes it worked. Before long, I had several prototypes based on everything from geology to archaeoastronomy to ancient mythology to fairy tales. I sent some of my better designs to the Hippodice board game design competition in Bochum, Germany where several became finalists. With help from my fellow designers in the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah (www.bgdg.info), eventually I was able to interest major publishers in my designs and I’m on my way to my fourth published game as we speak.

Tell us a bit about your first published games, Bridge Troll and Trollhalla. How would characterize them, and what let to their development and publication? Also: what’s with the troll thing?

I had encountered a sculpture in downtown Salt Lake City showing a Navajo woman leading sheep across a narrow bridge. I thought to myself how fun (and silly) it would be to put one of those wild-haired Scandinavian “Troll Dolls” beneath it, in homage to the fairy tale of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Somehow the idea of actually playing one of these trolls became very appealing to me. In Bridge Troll you get to play as a troll who eats and extorts the travelers who try to cross your bridge. In Trollhalla I took these trolls out to sea where they became Viking-like marauders out to pillage and plunder islands full of pigs and peasants, nervous monks, and panicked princesses. Although these are both Eurostyle board games, they feel a bit like role-playing games to me because the players actually get to play the monsters. Part of my fascination with trolls was instilled in me during childhood by my Danish mother, who was convinced that scary trolls lived beneath the bridge in her hometown. Trolls are big in Scandinavia!

What elements of The Canterbury Tales made you think they might make a good theme for a game? Were you concerned that some might be bothered by the religious satire?

I grew up on British comedies like Monty Python and Black Adder, and I see both of them as inspired by Chaucer’s irreverence six hundred years on. In The Canterbury Tales, a company of medieval pilgrims journeys together from the Tabard Inn at the outskirts of London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury, entertaining each other with stories along the way. Some of these tales are incredibly bawdy (and very funny). Many challenge existing social hierarchies and expose the hypocrisy of those who supposedly represent God and the church. Satire is a useful tool for cultural critique, and Chaucer was a Christian genuinely disturbed by religious corruption—and he found humor a better (and safer) vehicle for critique than direct denunciation. I thought it would be fun to make a humorous and “Chaucerian” game inspired by Chaucer’s own work. In The Road to Canterbury you play a greedy pardoner, and to succeed in filling your coin purse, you need to pardon pilgrims’ sins for quick cash. But to keep yourself in business you also have to tempt pilgrims to commit these very sins in the first place! You will bring along a special supply of bogus relics like “The Miraculous Moustache of Saint Wilgefortis” (a female, I might add) to help the pilgrim drive away unwanted sins and the like. So far, it appears that the theme of my game is sufficiently absurd that it draws more laughter than ire, even from the religiously inclined.

How does the theme mesh with the mechanics of play?

The game combines hand management, area control, and press-your luck mechanics: you must always make tough choices on whether to tempt a pilgrim to sin or to collect coins by pardoning sins in play. The catch is that the value of pardoned sins increases geometrically as the Sin cards accumulate, so you are “tempted” to let them really pile up—although doing so risks another player beating you to the punch! You can also cleverly play Relic cards to add some chaos to the game and deviously foil your opponents’ plans. I’ve put together a little Flash tutorial to help new players get a grip on how it all works at www.theroadtocanterbury.com

How did you choose the art and develop the aesthetic elements of the game?

A few years ago I stumbled upon Hieronymus Bosch’s tabletop painting The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things. Bosch’s deranged and demonic imagery and the rondel-style circle in the middle of the tabletop made me think that his painting might serve well as a game board, so I attempted a “posthumous collaboration.” It seems to have worked very well! Players say they love Bosch’s art on the board and on the Sin Cards, which give close-up images of Bosch’s representation of each individual “Deadly Sin.” I am a professor of English, so it was only natural to bring in seven pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales to create an unnatural Bosch-Chaucer hybrid. Each pilgrim has their own “favorite sin”: the Knight suffers from Pride, the Miller from Wrath, the Monk from Gluttony, etc., and for these illustrations Gryphon Games secured images from the early 15th Century Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The game’s “fine art” approach made it a suitable successor to Gryphon’s recent game Pastiche.

I understand you’ve achieved some measure of fame as a bad writer. What is the worst sentence you’ve ever written?

Well, my “claims to fame” in fiction writing are indeed all bad fiction entries in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, where the goal is to compose the worst opening sentence to a novel. I have scored several “Dishonorable Mentions” so far. My most efficient example is this one:

“The Zinfandel poured pinkly from the bottle, like a stream of urine seven hours after eating a bowl of borscht.”

And here is my best attempt to write an entire story in the self-enclosing style of Borges in a single sentence:

“Wet leaves stuck to the spinning wagon wheels like feathers to a freshly tarred heretic, reminding those who watched them of the endless movement of the leafy earth–or so they would have, if only those fifteenth-century onlookers had believed that the earth actually rotated, which they didn’t, which is why it was heretical to say that it did–and which is the reason why the wagon held a freshly tarred heretic in the first place.”

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