Get ready to join your crew-mates on a wild journey through space. You and up to one teammate have duties on board the ship: a Captain to be appeased, an intergalactic war to be fought, and a treacherous navigation system to manage. But what if this journey and your captain are not what they seem? Welcome to Space Fleet: The Game, a deck-building card game remediating the experience of a member of the USS Callister spaceship crew. Within the game, you will discover more details about your role in space and your captain’s true intentions. Does your original goal to be the perfect and submissive crew-mate change? You used to feel so free on this ship, yet by learning more about your captain and the simulation he designed, you can’t help but want to escape. The question is: can you escape in time and avoid the perils of space?
We chose to remediate the Black Mirror season 4 episode 1 “USS Callister” into a card game because the television episode itself remediates a video game in a television show. As a group, we were particularly drawn to the episode because the players within the episode are playing a video game–so meta! So we are, likewise, remediating video game play in a television show through a card game. In the episode, twisted genius-boss Robert Daly artfully collects and harbors DNA from coworkers he feels wronged him, or who stand out to him for a particular reason. An exact AI copy of the individual is placed within a simulated universe on the “USS Callister”, under the brutal command of Captain Daly. The show harkens to Star Trek in its aesthetic and simulated premise, while using the meta-reality of Daly’s ego and misogyny to critique the dark side of geek culture and gaming.
We made our best effort to emulate and recreate the immersive feeling of being stuck in a video game and trying to escape, just like the narrative depicted in the episode. To focus our remediation, we chose not to include the parallel office narrative to limit the game’s complexity. We also intentionally added the twist of the player not discovering that Daly is the “bad guy” until later in the game to surprise the player with this big change. We also chose this episode because it speaks directly to power imbalances related particularly to authority or control – themes inherent in play within a system of rules – as well as pertinent themes of gender, or toxic masculinity.
Our first game design goal to tackle in remediating “USS Callister” was representing a 180° change in the player’s goal halfway through our game. We chose to make a deck building game because it compliments having a reversible goal and demonstrating change over time, as it allows for adjustments in character well-being and traits through the addition and removal of thematic cards in the player deck. Independent of all aspects of the game, we remediated the asteroid field with its own tracker so that its reversible function could be implemented later in the game for an interesting twist. The game completely flips on its head, and now instead of working to stay away from the asteroid field and fight the villain, you must work to fly through the asteroids (safely) to reach the black hole while escaping the evil clutches of Captain Daly. This mid-game twist is implemented to remediate the surprise the characters undergo as they enter the simulation and have to transition from helping Daly to subverting his control.
As a co-operative game, the system faithfully represents the concerted effort the characters have to make to counter Daly’s egotistical simulation. Teamwork in the face of adversity also makes the players feel trapped together – a key aspect of the victims’ experience in the episode. Players begin with specific cards in their deck representing rudimentary skills and some weaknesses resulting from inexperience. Over the game, players must remove negative cards from their hand and add better cards to build a game winning composition of traits in their deck. In order for the players’ to survive Daly’s madness and the plights of space travel, they must work to improve both their deck composition while keeping up with the fight with Valdack, Captain Daly’s fickle mood, and navigation relative to the perilous asteroid field. The game’s event deck produced semi-random events according to the phase of the game, of which there are four. The events are dangerous, functioning as the “opponent” and causing players to divert attention to the three trackers that keep them from being defeated. This deck is also used to mark the game’s turning point or twist–when you realize you must head toward the asteroid field rather than away from it. The Daly’s mood track is especially evocative of the action in the show. Even as player’s learn Daly is a foe and not an ally, the game still forces them to keep him happy to avoid being thrown out of the ship and losing the game. Players must continue bringing Captain Daly his coffee order, celebrating Daly’s victories, and even kissing him to keep him happy while they subvert him behind the scenes. Balancing the representation of a misogynistic enemy through game mechanics in a prominent yet considerate manner took refinement and nuance in both the artist and the choice of thematic quotations on the bottom of each card.
During their turn, players have a wide range of strategic options. They can add skill cards to their deck, trash negative cards like injuries and confusion they have acquired, play skills from their hand, or draw a new hand of cards. In order to manually move the tracker, player’s can use “Effort”, but in doing so suffer a detriment to their character’s traits (their deck) in the form of a harmful “Exhaustion” card. Players choose 3 actions during each turn to keep the game balanced and exciting. When playing as a team, players decide in which order they each take their 3 actions so as to evenly distribute the cards between players. With these mechanical features to the game, the player experiences a semblance of control, but they are still beholden to the mercy of the game’s events, just like the crew members are in “USS Callister.”
A challenge we faced in designing the game was balancing game complexity and meaningful choices. The twist in the game is revealed after the first play through, but we still wanted the game to be fun to play multiple times. On top of this, we wanted someone who was playing through the first time to be able to understand all of the rules. While complexity makes the game more fun to play multiple times, it can make the first play through overwhelming and even discourage some from trying a game at all. We had to balance where to add meaningful choices to the game which add complexity, and where to streamline processes which were distracting from the core experience we sought to deliver. Some key decisions were adding a variety of new skills that can be added to give the game enjoyment over repeated plays, the semi-random nature of the event deck to retain surprise, and the ability to change the starting difficulty for veteran players seeking a heightened challenge. These are the final rules we decided on: Space Fleet: The Game Rule Book.
As far as design and aesthetics of the physical game are concerned, we decided to reflect the comic-book flair of the television episode alongside dramatic stills from the show itself. We used comic book fonts on the board, and we hand-drew the Space Fleet comic logo that was briefly shown in the episode. We also used an art style that added a more modern, digital finish for the cartoon crew, staying true to the outfits worn in the source material. After the card backs, crew, and board were drawn, stills were added to fill in other more minor images on the cards, such that the entire game would reflect the aesthetic of the setting in which it takes place.
Our greatest challenge in creating the game was working together to create a tangible product when we couldn’t work together in person. For example, we had to figure out how to let one person create a board, another create card art, and another put the finished product together. The solution we decided on – shipping the board and doing digital art for the cards – meant that the board and cards were not together until later in the project. This meant that it was difficult to get footage of the game for a trailer until late in the process. Communication between seven group members, who ended up in different time zones for the final week of production, sometimes proved difficult as well. In distinguishing between real vs fiction elements of the experience, those group members creating the rules (real) were different than the ones creating the art (fiction). As all communication was done over zoom and text, clarification questions were frequently needed. We showed each other reference photos throughout the design process, and we reviewed the source material together beforehand. When designing the game, the story behind the rules was given high priority, but the actual implementation of aspects of the story through card art and board design were done by people even as the rules were being developed and finalized. In the end, we were able to communicate effectively over Zoom and text to collaborate on the game, but it was a significant challenge. We learned how to keep the theming of the game consistent with these communication challenges (Zoom, distance, time zones) in place — we were able to take all of our individual contributions to the game and make them highly cohesive to create a final product that visually captures the essence of the game and the episode’s shared themes.
If this blog post was not enough to make you want to play Space Fleet: The Game, we hope this trailer will do the trick!
Thanks for reading/watching,
Group 3: Maya Diaz, Stone Edwards, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman
Trailer Production: Maya Diaz and Stone Edwards
Game Mechanics/Rules: Davis Glen Ellis and Dylan Kistler
Game Artwork: Helen Loda
Game Board Assembly: Ashley Hemenway
Card Assembly: Stone Edwards
Card Design: Dylan Kistler and Maya Diaz
Game Design Document: Maya Diaz, Davis Glen Ellis, Ashley Hemenway, Dylan Kistler, Helen Loda, and Emma Waldman