Posting about one of my own games for a change: I’m honored to be one of four New York City game-makers that were asked to create a game for the fifth annual No Quarter exhibition of games. My game is called Consentacle, and it is:
a cooperative card game for two players;
that represents a consensual sexual encounter between a curious human and a tentacled alien;
where the players have to figure out how to build trust and do sexual things with each other, even if they can’t communicate easily.
Consentacle was first announced during the Sex Games panel at this year’s edition of the amazing Different Games conference, and although I talked a little bit about the background of the game (which at that point was a little embryo) I’ve only shared snippets since. Here’s a further look at the game in mock Q&A format, although I’m not releasing full rules before No Quarter, in part because some rules are still in flux.
So it’s a game where you have sex? How does that work?
My earlier sex-centric game from around 2006, Sex-Mix, is a simple set of rules for playing a game during sex. It makes sex into a hopefully hilarious and disruptive competition, and quite possibly makes the sex you’re having worse. Consentacle, on the other hand, is just a representation of sex. You can play it with friends… even if you don’t intend to have actual sex with them! It’s flexible like that. It’s also not NC-17 explicit in its depictions of sex–in part because the game’s meant to be played in public at the exhibition, possibly by people who aren’t sexually interested in each other, but mostly because it wasn’t really necessary to go really blue.
The cards in Consentacle mostly represent actions that you’d like to do with each other–from staring intensely at your partner to licking them or restraining them. As in many deck-based card games, each player has their own deck of cards from which they draw a hand and play cards; each player simultaneously plays one card from their hand, and depending on the pair of cards that’s played, you carry out different actions in the game. Those things mostly have to do with moving around and exchanging a resource that each player has, called Trust. Trust is represented by colored tokens: red for the alien player, and blue for the human. (A rough version of both tokens is shown above — they fit together.) When you’ve done that, you draw a new card and start the next turn; the last turn starts when you have no cards left to draw.
What do the cards do? How do we know which cards to play?
Cards in Consentacle do a few different things depending on the card:
- Some cards let you Build Trust: this means you get to draw more Trust tokens into your personal pile
- Some cards let you Share Trust: these cards let you move Trust tokens from your pile into a shared pool, which is an area between you and your partner
- Once you’ve shared some Trust, you can Create Satisfaction: this means taking out a pair of tokens (one of yours, and one of your partners) and exchanging it for a third, purple token called Satisfaction
- Finally, once you’ve created some Satisfaction tokens, you can Take Satisfaction and get some Satisfaction tokens out of the shared pool
- There are a few special cards that let you use the Satisfaction tokens you’ve taken to create more Trust, making a loop to create more Satisfaction
How does consent work in this game? Do we talk about what we’re going to do before it happens?
First of all, before playing Consentacle, it’s important to ask the person you want to play with whether they want to play with you! If they don’t, you can’t play with them. This rule’s a little similar to the opening of Loren Schmidt and Jimmy Andrews’ Realistic Kissing Simulator — but also to how most non-digital games are hopefully based on consensual participation.
Once you’re in the game with someone else, there are two ways to play Consentacle: first, what I’m calling “Practice Consent” mode, which is great for learning the game. In Practice Consent, you talk about what cards are in your hand and what you might want to do next. The other mode is “Consent Challenge,” and represents the tricky aspects of inter-species sexual encounters; in this mode, you’re not allowed to talk about your cards, game strategy, or what you’re going to play next. You play your cards face down and reveal them simultaneously, and see what happens.
There’s one more rule that I’ve been playtesting, inspired by John Stavropoulos’ X-Card mechanic for role-playing games. After your cards are revealed, either player may say “Stop” to cancel the turn if they don’t like what’s being proposed.
So how do you beat the other player if they can cancel the turn at any time?
Consentacle is meant to be a cooperative game: your goal isn’t necessarily to beat the other player, but to see how much Satisfaction you can create together. You can choose not to consent to any proposed action (which is of course easier to avoid if you are in Practice Consent mode and can talk about it first!) but canceling naturally has an impact on what you’re trying to do together.
There’s no strict way to win or lose at Consentacle–instead, at least as of this writing, the game has a chart that you can consult after playing, to see how you did. The chart just suggests what your romantic alien-human entanglement was like based on how many Satisfaction tokens you each have. Between the two of you, you might have created and taken a lot of Satisfaction… but what if one of you ended up with twice as much? Well, perhaps one of you was more giving or sacrificing than the other. It’s up to you how you want to play and what your goals are, though: maybe you want to play to balance Satisfaction out, or maybe you don’t.
Some of my playtesters — especially the ones who are more invested in games as strategic contests — wanted to know if they could play the game competitively, to beat each other. It’s definitely possible as an extension of Consentacle‘s basic system; it could even be an interesting game with slightly expanded decks including cards which feel like betraying or using the other player. After all, it’s eminently and sadly possible for that to happen in real romantic and sexual relationships where we try and share mutual trust. For the first version, debuting at No Quarter, I wanted to focus on collaboration and building together, as opposed to betrayal. Sorry, guys!
Can you play with more than one player?
Definitely! Consentacle is suitable for playing in bigger groups; you just play in pairs, and each game takes maybe 15-20 minutes once you’ve learned how to play. Then you can swap partners! Like speed dating, or maybe a sex party? Whatever works for you as a metaphor, really. There may even be some ways you can change your deck between games…
How about the… uh, tentacles? Where does that all come in?
The alien deck and the human deck are slightly different, though not radically so. The tentacle aspect of the game, however, shows up more strongly in the visuals. I’m working with James Harvey, who’s creating illustrations for all the cards. Those illustrations show the two characters that star in this version of Consentacle: Dup, a friendly alien looking to meet some humans, and Kit, a curious human who’s determined to hook up with a tentacled entity from beyond, no matter what anyone says. Here are some early pencil sketches that James made of Kit:
The illustration on the left is from the “Wink” card, which is a card that lets you build some Trust. If both players play Wink at the same time, however, it’s a little less effective: you get less Trust that way. Other cards are more effective if played at the same time, or with a certain other card!
Why does this game have tentacles in it, anyway? Is that something about tentacle porn? I mean… gross.
Yep. Tentacle porn, known mostly as an anime-subgenre where helpless girls get raped, is pretty disgusting and also a major influence on the idea for this game. Here’s the backstory: I encountered tentacle-rape porn for the first time in the 90s, when my sister and I accidentally checked some out from the video rental place where she worked during high school. We subsequently tried to wash our eyes and brains, to no avail. By the time I was halfway through college, tentacle porn had become a joke about Japan: I’m a Japanese-American, and I was asked more than once by hilariously witty classmates whether my family watched tentacle porn together. The topic became part and parcel of a depiction of Japanese culture that I grew far too familiar with, even though it bore little resemblance to my own experiences living in Japan as a kid and visiting friends and family there: Japanese culture as super-weird, disgusting, sexually obsessed, sexist, and characterized by anime, video games, manga, porn, sadistic game shows, cute schoolgirls eating cute snacks, and so forth. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy many items among the aforementioned categories, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy the “Japan is Weird” trope as it’s emerged in the West.
Still, I never would have thought of using tentacles for a positive portrayal of sex in a game until a couple years ago, when a card game called Tentacle Bento was booted from Kickstarter for deploying these same themes in the most reprehensible way possible: putting players in the role of tentacled monsters aiming to not-so-subtly rape schoolgirls. I was one of many people who spoke out against that game, but I also ended up mentioning an idea to Anna Anthropy–couldn’t you make a game about having consensual sex with tentacled monsters?! Besides the crucial point of not making players act out rape, it seemed to me like potentially productive (and squirmy) terrain to explore. Different partners negotiating differently non-normative bodies: it spoke to me as a queer creator. After all, creatures with tentacles need love too. Special thanks to Anna for bugging me about this game for the last couple years and keeping it evolving in my mind from a reaction against a gross Kickstarter into something of its own. I might have forgotten it without her, and I kept telling her I’d send her ideas and rules to get her feedback, but I never did. (Sorry, Anna.) This year, the No Quarter exhibition got me to start turning the concept into a real game.
Besides the above, I want to say I owe a lot to the fact that many other game-makers have been tackling sex & romance in games over the last few years — and quite obviously not in the traditional “get points high enough to unlock sex with a NPC” kind of way. Just eight or nine years ago, this territory was fraught and stigmatized enough that I gave the rules for Sex-Mix to only a handful of people, and that’s a fairly silly and light approach to the subject! I’m grateful for Realistic Kissing Simulator and How Do You Do It and Encyclopaedia Fuckme and Slave of God and SABBAT and Consensual Torture Simulator and Sacrilege and many more games, not to mention people who write about games and are willing to talk about sex.
But Consentacle feels pretty system-oriented compared to some of the games mentioned above. Is this like, a traditional game with a sex theme?
Other game creators are fantastic at expressing stories and experiences from their own lives through the experience of a game–or at creating an evocative experience that doesn’t need a heavy focus on structure in order to be incredibly moving. Those modes of expression are incredibly inspiring to me, but I refract my reality and experience in my own way. I’ve never been much of a directly autobiographical game-maker, but the way I make games, the things I represent and how I put together systems and numbers–all of that springs from my life and who I am. As a designer, I’ve always been interested in playing around with systems and rules and seeing what we can do with them expressively — especially in a space of play that involves multiple players encountering each other — so hopefully Consentacle explores some of that and will add to the fruitful intersection of sex+games. It’s a tricky thing, though, especially when it comes to conveying life and possibilities through a system: as Paolo Pedercini points out so well, the logic of resources moving around a system is very often reflective, to some degree, of the logic of capitalist systems around us. Consentacle has some of that logic too; it is a game of romance and sex under late capitalism, as a result–but hopefully also a game with possibilities of reinterpreting, subverting and finding your own way amidst that potential maze.
The mechanics of the game are definitely influenced by limited-communication games such as Hanabi and Onirim as well as classic puzzles like the Tower of Hanoi. Perhaps most significantly, I thought a lot about Android: Netrunner during the creation of this game, because of how that game’s system and interplay feels so expressive of intimacy, vulnerability and relationships between players–albeit one fraught with secrecy, betrayal, and competition.
I can’t believe you didn’t ask yourself this question yet: how can I play this game?
Consentacle is going to debut at the No Quarter exhibition in New York City this September. (The exact details haven’t been announced yet.) It’ll be playable there.
Of course, that might be disappointing if you’re not in New York! If you’re interested in playtesting the game, let me know; I may be sending out print-and-play kits on a very limited basis both before and after the exhibition. After that, who knows?
In any case, if you’re curious about the game or have reactions to the very concepts or directions described above, I’d love to hear them. One of the most important parts of creating games for me is seeing responses from the kinds of people I’m making a game for (and if you’re reading this, that may include you) and I’ve had plenty of great feedback from playtesters about how Consentacle works and plays, but not as much about the concepts, goals, and kinds of things I talk about in this post!