C@rds in Common: Learning about the Commons Through Play

Because the practices of commoning fly in the face of market culture, they are frequently misunderstood.  What is this process of committed collaboration toward shared goals? people may wonder.  How does it work, especially when many industries want to privatize control of the resource or prevent competition via commoning?

Matthieu Rhéaume, a commoner and game designer who lives Montreal, decided that a card game could be a great vehicle for introducing people to the commons.  The result of his efforts is “C@rds in Common:  A Game of Political Collaboration.”  “I see playfulness as a sense-making tool,” Matthieu told me.  “People can play casually and be surprised by the meta-learning [about the commons] that results.”

It all began at the World Social Forum (WSF) conference in Montreal in August 2016. Rhéaume decided to use the opportunity to synthesize viewpoints about the commons from a group of 50 participants and use the results to develop the card game.  He persuaded the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation and Gazibo, both based in France, to support development of the game. Fifty commoners more or less co-created the game with the help of several colleagues.  (The process is described here.)

As a game designer, Rhéaume realized that successful, fun games must embody a certain “procedural rhetoric” and reward storytelling. He had enjoyed playing “Magic: The Gathering,” a popular multiplayer card game, and wondered what that game would feel like if it were collaborative.

At the WSF, Rhéaume asked participants to share their own insights about the commons by submitting suggested cards in six categories. The first four categories consist of “commoners cards” featuring  “resources,” “action cards,” “project cards” and “attitude cards.”  Two other types of cards -- “Oppressive Forces” cards with black backs – give the game its kick by applying  “negative effects” to the “Political Arena” of play.  The two negative effects are “enclosures” and “crises,” to which commoners must collectively organize and respond in time.

Intended for two to five players, the game usually lasts between 60 and 90 minutes.  It has enough of a basic storyline to be easily understood, but enough complexity and sophisticated twists to be unpredictable and interesting.  The key objective of the game is to “create a Political Arena resilient enough to defend the commons against encroaching enclosures.”  The players win when there are no more enclosure cards in the Political Arena.  They lose if there are more than five enclosures present at any one time.

The backs of the Oppressive Forces cards feature a conquistador with a spear and text reading, “I am here to take the commons.”  One of the Oppressive Force card is “Trump Elected!” which demobilizes every commons campaign underway.  Another OF card, “Old Inner Culture,” prohibits the discarding of “attitudes” cards (which might otherwise hasten commoning).  A “Fear of the Unknown” card prohibits players from drawing new cards for one cycle.

By contrast, the commoner cards feature such things as urban gardens, First Nations, degrowth and independent media.  A series of “Attitude” cards affect a player’s capacity to cooperate. 

WSF participants submitted a wild diversity of 240 cards to Rhéaume giving many perspectives on commoning and enclosure.  Rheaume used 120 of cards and his own knowledge of game design to produce the game, printing at a local printer.  He tested C@rds in Common through 25 games and four design iterations, attempting to achieve a 50% failure rate (the forces of enclosure win).  Players discovered that the complexities of cooperation grow as new enclosures introduce new variables.  A game booklet describes how players can make winning more difficult (by accelerating the rate of enclosure threats and reducing the time allowed to build civil society).

Rhéaume concedes that the first play of C@rds in Common can be challenging, but there are YouTube videos to help new players learn the game. (See this video introduction to the game as a project, and this "how to play" video tutorial.)  

Rhéaume would like to refine the game further – it still has elements of the WSF event, including some French-only cards – but he is pleased that the game helps introduce players into the commons worldview and start deeper conversations about it.  Following most games, players reflect on what happened and tell stories about the successful collaborations that emerged and enclosures that prevailed.

The game was released in February, first with a European launch overseen by Fréderic Sultan of Gazibo.  There are now more than 70 decks of C@rds in Common (in French, C@rtes en Communs) circulating there.

The Canadian launch of the game will take place in Montreal on May 11 at 17:30 to 20:30 at 5248 Boulevard Saint-Laurent in Montreal.  To register for the (free) event, here is a link on Brown Paper Tickets.

A deck of the game can be bought directly, at cost, via a commercial distributor, Game Crafters, at https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/c-rds-in-common, for $22.40.  Until May 31, Canadians can acquire the game more cheaply by signing up for a bulk order at this webpage; Rhéaume et al. will then distribute the games to individual buyers. 

Let me add a charming historical footnote that Rhéaume sahred with me. On the back of each commoner card, there is a drawing of a farmer with the text, “Give me my leather coat and my purse in a groat. That’s some habit for a husbandman.”

Those lines are from a song in a medieval mummers play, "The Seven Champions of Christendom." The lyrics are a heated discussion between a servingman to the king and a free and independent husbandman (commoner) about the merits and liabilities of their respective stations in life. (The song originated from Symondsbury, near Bridport, Dorset, in England -- so a shout-out to STIR magazine, which is based there!).

A sample exchange between the servingman and the husbandman:

[Servingman] But then we do wear the finest of grandeur,
My coat is trimmed with fur all around;
Our shirts as white as milk and our stockings made of silk:
That's clothing for a servingman.

[Husbandman] As to thy grandeur give I the coat I wear
Some bushes to ramble among;
Give to me a good greatcoat and in my purse a grout [coarse meal],
That's clothing for an husbandman.

The full lyrics of the song can be found here.