From board game to digital: Team Ink creates “The Vassar Life”

Courtesy of Team Ink via SIMMER.io.

My computer screen displays a map of Vassar, a beautiful collage of photographs and illustrations. My cursor hovers over several buildings as I choose which to visit. “I’m heading to the library,” I tell my Zoom group, “and—” I pause as I read the card that appears over the map, “I read ‘Immigrant, Montana’ by Amitava Kumar. I get 10 points on Academics and a combo of three points every time I go to Sunset Lake.” After reading the card out loud, I can’t help but beam as I recall my memories of attending Professor Kumar’s first-year writing seminar, and how during our first class he proudly showcased the trailer for that very same book.

This was my experience playing “The Vassar Life,” a game that started out as a student-created board game in the Davison parlor before finding its virtual home. “The Vassar Life” features digital card-based gameplay that allows participants to revisit the Vassar campus from their screens, simulating the student experience through an interactive map. The game utilizes playing cards that feature nuggets of Vassar culture, and players “visit” different spots on campus while encountering Vassar-specific situations, from getting lost in the library basement to enjoying a study session at the Bridge Cafe. 

The Vassar Life has been a many months’ work by soon-to-be preorganization Team Ink. As founder Dollar Zhu ’22 explained, “[Team Ink is] a game design team that focuses on games as a form of media, because when you think of tools and narratives, we started with oral tales, then we moved to writing, radio, cinema [and] TV. And I think games are the next big thing because they provide this sort of interactive experience for the player to be absorbed in a world to experience narratives in a whole new way.” Prior to the pandemic, the group held dinners every Friday dedicated to learning coding and game engines like Unity, as well as GB meetings to discuss game mechanisms and technicalities. Since they only came together last semester, Team Ink has been primarily focused on “The Vassar Life,” their first game to come to fruition. 

From the screen, the game centers on the player—a Vassar student intending to make the most out of their college experience. Within 40 turns in each single-player game, the player is tasked with visiting certain parts of campus, such as the Loeb Art Center or the library. Each place gives the player a card that either adds or deducts a point from one of five categories: Academics, Social, Physique, Art and Happiness. These cards brim with references to Vassar culture, from actual professors whose cards give bonus points (Assistant Professor of Computer Science Rui Pacheco Meireles, who helped assist Team Ink with game components, is featured) to enjoying Tasty Tuesdays inside Main. When the player reaches the 40th turn, they receive a graduation diploma listing their accomplishments and failures within each category.

While the players took few turns to get used to gameplay, designing and creating the game was a beast of its own. Team Ink required a team with assorted skill sets. Contrary to what one might think, game design goes beyond slamming lines of code on a keyboard. In order to conceptualize what a gaming experience should look and be like, you have to first know what you want the computers to do; creativity and team coordination are thus foundational for the mechanics, aesthetics and ultimate success of the game. For “The Vassar Life,” Zhu stated that Team Ink divided its 20 members into three groups: game design, coding and communications. Game designers focused on the logistics of the cards used in the game, coders focused on implementing the mechanics and the communications team was responsible for hosting events (including the test-plays) and spreading the word to the Vassar community.

“A lot of work has gone into the writing of the cards, and/or communicating with the professors to have them to be a part of the game,” Zhu emphasized. “Or just coming up with the add-and-subtract point mechanics [for the cards]. So, I think as a liberal arts college, game design is actually one of the things that fits neatly into our sort-of-overarching structure of our education because it requires so many parts.” 

Although their semester was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, work and coordination between the three groups continued online. “The whole team was in a Facebook group with all the members,” said Mihajlo Ivanovic ’22, who helped with game design. “Everyone was very active and trying to contribute and help, under Google Docs, shared drives, [and] trying to play the game by ourselves and then reporting problems.”

Ivanovic had played the game in its earliest form, back when it was a board game in the Davison parlor. He admitted that the game seemed a bit tedious to him initially. At the time, “The Vassar Life” did not have a form of resolution and was slow going. After its initial test play, the game required revision. “I think that’s arguably the kind of thing that makes the game interesting,” Ivanovic said with regards to the test-play process, “because it was very hard to like a good idea and implement [it]—that is not very easy.”

After tweaking “The Vassar Life,” Team Ink launched a virtual test-play for the game’s digital form. Interested players joined Team Ink members in Zoom breakout rooms, who guided them through the gaming process. 

Students at the first test play, according to Team Ink, have appreciated the game’s centering of campus culture. Emily Wadholm ’23, who was part of the game design team, recalled, “A lot of people were super sentimental because they just missed campus and all the students. They just enjoyed that for the social aspect.” Some members even put their own creative spin into the gaming sessions, adding truth-or-dare or icebreaker questions in between turns so that players could bond with each other. In my group, I was asked, “What’s your favorite class?” when I received a Professor’s Card from Main, and happily shared my experience with an Asian Studies course I had taken for fun.

Chuqi Hu ’23, who also worked in game design, similarly emphasized how the game connected playersagreed, adding, “Because I wrote some of the cards, and when leading the [breakout] group, it’s really great for me knowing that people actually can echo what my experience was like, especially to have the same experience for Deece food or dorm life.”

Members of Team Ink are considering new adjustments to the game, including adding more cards and extra information for prospective students who may play it as they consider attending Vassar. Furthermore, Team Ink hopes to expand the game’s outreach for the incoming Class of 2024, whether that will be the virtual version or the board game version during an in-person Orientation. “We’re trying to talk to President Bradley and administration, so we hope to have our game be on the Vassar website, and also be used in the admissions haul so people can actually see the game and play it when they’re trying to learn more about the Vassar experience,” summarized Zhu.

In the meantime, the game can be found online on simmer.io. In the future, Team Ink may create even more narrative games for Vassar students to enjoy.

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