By Don Troop
A dozen years ago, Alf Seegert was into playing solo video games, and his wife-to-be was feeling left out. “Can’t we play something together?” she asked Mr. Seegert, who works today as an assistant professor/lecturer in the University of Utah’s English department.
That conversation led Mr. Seegert to The Settlers of Catan, a board game that the couple has been playing as a Saturday-night ritual with friends ever since. He became so enamored of games of that genre, which are known as German-style or Eurogames, that 10 years ago he decided to try making some of his own. He joined the Board Game Designers Guild of Utah, a group of like-minded geeks who test drive one another’s creations and offer advice and camaraderie.
Today Mr. Seegert is a five-time finalist at the Hippodice Game Competition—”the Sundance of board games,” he calls it—a German contest in which designers like himself try to get noticed by established publishers. Eventually two of his games, Trollhalla and Bridge Troll, got published, and he was hooked. “I like making games where you get to play the bad guy,” says Mr. Seegert, who spends a good deal of his time working over his ideas in a quest for the next hit.
He was teaching Chaucer in an “Intellectual Traditions” course when inspiration struck, resulting in his forthcoming game, The Road to Canterbury.
To be clear, Mr. Seegert emphasizes, the game is not a retelling of The Canterbury Tales.
In The Road to Canterbury, each player functions as the character of the Pardoner, traveling with seven of Chaucer’s pilgrims, each of whom is afflicted with one of the seven deadly sins. Using relic, sin, and pilgrim cards, the Pardoner tries to persuade the others that they will die if they succumb to greed. In truth, says Mr. Seegert, the Pardoner is the greediest of the lot, hoping the others will “buy his fake indulgences so they can enjoy remission of their sins and spend less time in purgatory.”
Players store their winnings in coin purses, which Mr. Seegert says is deeply symbolic: “Chaucer depicts the Pardoner as having a very indeterminate gender, and it’s as if his coin purse is compensating for what he lacks between his legs.”
“The goal in the game is to become as corrupt and wealthy a Pardoner as possible,” Mr. Seegert says. “It’s completely irony-laced. You benefit from all the evil things that you’ve done.”
The game is designed for two to three players, ages 10 and up, and no one is eliminated during play, which takes about an hour. Whoever has the most money at the end wins.
During his development of Canterbury, Mr. Seegert stumbled onto “The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things,” by the Dutch artist Hieronymous Bosch, a tabletop painting that immediately made the professor think of a game board. “It’s Dr. Seuss on acid,” he says, “strange sorts of stuff.”
The middle of the table depicts the seven deadly sins in a circle. Mr. Seegert combined that image with pictures from the Ellesmere Manuscript, an illuminated collection of Chaucer’s stories from the 15th century, to produce the board and playing cards. His work attracted the attention of Gryphon Games, a company that distributes independent games.
Gryphon was unsure of Canterbury’s marketability, so to gauge interest the company placed the idea on Kickstarter, an online pledge site that invites people to invest in innovative projects. Last week The Road to Canterbury exceeded its $10,000 Kickstarter goal, but Mr. Seegert hopes the pledges keep rolling in so that Gryphon will know how many copies to produce.
Early investors have an incentive, he says: While the game will sell for about $60 plus mailing costs, anyone who gives at least $45 will get a copy of the game, postage included.