And so it was written. As though inked by ancient scribes in a conjoined act of soothsaying and creation. A fortuitous collision at a print shop lights the touchpaper. Lightning strikes. Two disparate strands of DNA coil in tangled barbs, forming the nucleus of an eruption that would leave a fuming crater in its wake. A puckered orifice into the depths of the earth, slithering via corroded corridors to the pit of infinite shadow. A third mutation blossoms within, and an unholy trinity was shot forth shambling unto an unsuspecting world.
From the coiling wisps of a brimstone miasma suffused of arcane putrescence they emerged. Jochen, Nate and the Manifester.
The Emperors of Eternal Evil.
First Strike is Deadly
The Emperor’s first cursed missive to us mortals –Cave Evil– was a singular vision wrought screaming from the underworld unto an unsuspecting gaming scene clogged with banal mid-weight euros and humdrum Tolkien-esque crawlers. An aberration in stark and striking monochromatic defiance of prevailing design trends that nonetheless struck an instant (tri-tone) chord with an audience of reprobates who were so very ready for something profane, polluted and addictive. It’s very presence at Essen Spiel cracked the earthenware pots and blackened the sourdough loaves of surrounding vendor’s efforts as it turned heads in a whiplash inducing call from the grave. And sat beneath its pitch black and idiosyncratic trappings lurked an accomplished and mechanically taut skirmish that sounded a clarion call for return trips to the pit.
But it was only the beginning.
The horrors of necromantic pit-fiends are as nothing compared to the evils that lurk in the hearts of men, and so a more grounded follow-up was conceived in the guise of Psycho Raiders – the ultimate bad time slasher film tribute. Issued in a printer-and wallet-friendly zine format it would beget a series of sequels that would in turn explore more terrifying tentpole archetypes from the marbled halls of our collective canon of terrors. Carnival freaks, doomed mariners, wolfen hillfolk, tormented recluses and apocalyptic conflicts all spilling onto hexen fields in a splayed array of chits and paper cuts – sacrifices for the ludic gods as the Emperors manifested their prolific pantheon. Lo-fi, uncensored, unique. They spoke of something hidden and forbidden in the proud tradition of gaming as subversive act. A satanic panic couched in a ziplock shroud. Your mother wouldn’t like it.
As these offering emerged and their cadre of acolytes multiplied, it became clear that we were beholden to one of the most unique and exciting collectives in all of modern gaming. Ravens were duly dispatched to shed some more sputtering light on their maleficent manifesto. They returned in time, featherbare and haunted with the following tale:
Nate: I grew up around Zines and Xerox machines. A fellow named John P. moved to Denver from Chicago and got the whole city into his King Cat Comics, and so many other zines popped up. At the same time I was making a bunch of noise cassettes by going down to Kinkos and crafting together album covers.
And then there was meeting Manifester and others. It was important to be able to make things. But it was in playing Strategy & Tactics Magazine that all the planets aligned. Gaming, Magazines, minimal components. (Choir harmonically sings “Ahhhhh”).
Jochen: My first experience meeting Manifester was finding him hogging about three out of the five copy machines at this particular Kinkos that we both went to and I remember thinking “who is this dude?”
I had some tape covers to make for my own noise projects at the time so I think we got to talking then. Or maybe it was during the time that my roommate and I had developed this habit of photocopying trash. Same thing as what Nate said basically: it was important to make things, so naturally photocopying was important.
Most souls who tread this particular path recall a formative experience as initiation. Something that back in the mists of time emerged to enthral, whether it was a Cousin’s forbidden copy of D&D or a dusty ziplock wargame found mouldering and lurking unloved with intent in the blighted back corner of a hobby shop…
Nate: I grew up with very common board gaming, the basics. As a kid I really liked one called The Slime Monster Game, which came with a can of green slime. But what really nailed me into this hobby was entering a game store on a whim and seeing a bunch of wargames, euros, and horror related games and just taking chances on them. But, oddly, the sheer fun of hanging with friends was in playing just Risk, then venturing into Catan, (Reiner) Knizia stuff and others. I do remember being about five hours into of a game of Age of Renaissance and entering into a kind of blissful time machine-like dream, thinking these board games truly carry an experience like no other.
Manifester: Cousins from both sides of my family introduced me to the D&D Basic Set in the late 70’s. I had to fight a giant scorpion in a solemn stone tomb, there was a dwarf, maybe it was me. We were in a tent in real life. There was a kid I met that day who had a fish fin growing out of his head, I knew then the path that I must follow…
Jochen: Same as the above for me. I grew up in Germany playing all sorts of boardgames when I was a kid with my family. Of course it didn’t take long for me to venture into D&D, though in Berlin we started with DSA (Das Schwarze Auge) and then also classic D&D, Dark Sun, Shadowrun, the Battletech RPG and many others.
I still vividly remember reading the introductory adventure in the DSA starter set over and over while I was sick at home with some horrible flu and fever. Maybe it was the state of my mind but there was something to this narrative about a dungeon run by Orcs that really enthralled me. As far as board games go, I played a lot of Hero Quest with my friends, and some Warhammer 40k on a huge model train kit of the Swiss alps that my friend’s older brother had carefully constructed, and of course also Space Hulk.
To the innocent initiate and indoctrinated believer alike- impressions forged by the thematic might of the Emperor’s output stride proudly to the forefront of the mind’s eye. In the alchemy of creation, one wonders – do these elements ferry the mechanics on their backs or are we engaged in a more amorphous form of symbiosis?
Nate: Most often theme comes first. A kind of theme will often come out of the fog and we start learning what that is, then when we understand the theme the mechanics begin to be seen. For example: If a game idea has Necromancers – what do the Necromancers do? How can these actions of a Necromancer work? It sort of evolves from there.
Jochen: Yes, definitely theme first. I would also add ‘ecosystem’ to that, as in making a world believable. Mechanics should be balanced between being realistic, in that they’re complex enough to make player’s actions believable within the theme, but not so complex that intuitive choice is impossible.
Nate: Usually one of us will get an idea and create some kind of thing to work with. If it is a game, this may be a first test. We then start testing it with each other, or commenting on it, and we can each bring ideas to it together. For Psycho Raiders, we were throwing ideas for horror games around and Jochen came up with the title “Psycho Raiders” and posted a van with black clad guys. This popped the idea light bulb and I made a playtest of what this might be like. Manifester played it, commenting on details, and suggested “It needs these Kill Cards you draw and see how you die.” So the process sort of builds upon ideas.
Jochen: Yeah I would say that it is chaotic (as it should be) but usually the theme or the overall idea that emerges in all of our minds is what holds it together and basically dictates the outcome.
Nate: There is a way that the game needs to be. It kind of grows as it is being tested. We do very little art in playtests so the art starts with just imagination throughout the process. When it comes time to do the art we know how it has to be. In this hobby there are great artistic designs. The wargaming side, to me, has one of the greatest art and design outputs of the 20th century. The work of Avalon Hill, from their first games and on into the 90s, SPI and Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen’s work, Richard Berg and many many more.
Beyond the horrific trappings, the Emperors seed their work with hints of the esoteric and metaphysical that speak of both lysergic experimentation with consciousness and perception, as well as an exploration of historical and mythical mystery traditions. Reality Tunnels abetted by psychonauts such as Robert Anton Wilson? Or something more archaic? How does this kind of research and experimentation bleed into the emergent conceptual and design philosophies?
Nate: When I was young I did read some Robert Anon Wilson – Prometheus Rising, Schrodinger’s Cat and also some Timothy Leary stuff. I definitely poked around with Crowley and Anton LaVey. I even tried Scientology classes to get the gist/jest of it, but overall I think those cats are not as solid as the actual ancients. The real peeps that developed mystery schools, Holy Writ, and ancient Philosophy. Pre-Socratics such as Parmenides, or Orphic mysteries, Plato, Zoroaster, the Sagas, the authors of the RigVeda, or Mahabarat, Homer and more, there is just so much to look at it is quite astounding.
If we consider actual magic, the stuff is legit. The gods are real, there really are principles one can work with. Real wizardry is there if one wants to pursue it. The more modern writers are often pining for a break from the past and only concerned with the modern or futuristic. I find the whole timeline – from as ancient as one can find, to the modern and on into the future as all vastly interesting myself.
Manifester: Tending the cauldron reveals a plethora of revelations, the first of which that is you know absolutely nothing always. The corridors of the unknown unfold before you eternally.
Jochen: You can always go further down the corridor; it beckons to those capable of listening. Games are special in that they can in some way allow the mind to travel to other realms or maybe realities, but it takes conscious effort – as is required in any worthwhile endeavour.
Kicking Against the Pricks
The other crucial strand to this empirical fabric seems to be a thread of anti-establishment, DIY, punk and metal DNA that courses through the catalogue. It speaks of a mindset forged in opposition to banality and consumption as it joins its antecedents and inspirations in wilful participation.
Manifester: Many choose to bask in the glare of the cathode tube as it bombs your brain with corrupted truths, others look for true inspiration, the molten ores that stream through the placid dead firmaments, the ones that light the forge and alloy themselves in great swords and weaponry of Legend.
Nate: The sovereign choice matters. The establishment is not bad if people are able to be sovereign within it and work with each other. When dealing with others, we may agree to establish nations or other things, we may even depend on others for various needs. I don’t make milk, I don’t have cows, so I will buy milk from the person tending to cows, but if the state or business begins to string one out upon it I become the average Patriotic American type -the “Freedom, Private Property, Guns, stay the hell away from me” guy…
Jochen: I second Nate here in terms of the sovereign choice being the only thing that matters. Manifester and I had been brewing this idea of making a game about ‘creatures in a dungeon’ for some time and not having designed any game whatsoever before – we just sort of dove in. Nate helped us tremendously in terms of understanding what it actually takes to design an actual ‘game’ but we had no thoughts at all of any ‘establishment’, traditional gaming or what may have come before — all that we could think about was how to bring Cave Evil to life.
One thing that I will add in terms of ‘anti-establishment’ is that games, as in physical, printed things, really do offer a kind of freedom that is not possible in other forms (see Cathode Ray-diation). Because on all of those ‘platforms’ your every click, swipe or whatever is next is being tracked, analyzed and monetized by the new establishments of our day. Games also require that bit of conscious effort, of mental work and maybe meditation so they stand somewhat in opposition to the digital platforms of the new establishments because those have been designed with the help of billions upon billions of dollars to eliminate any sort of mental effort and to create only mindless addiction.
Influence, Imitation, Infection
At the time of its inception and release in Anno 2011, initial breakthrough title Cave Evil was a truly unique prospect that acted as both a forge for the Emperors’ reputation as well as perhaps a mould for meeker mendicants to fill and follow. From the RPG OSR to the still small but burgeoning waves of aesthetically indebted tabletop heirs, it seems Cave Evil was truly a touchstone and agent of evolution that echoed throughout the medium. What ripples drive this phenomenon?
Nate: I like all the other stuff. I can only speak for ourselves, but ours came from an intuitive place, a grim area that had to crack through to the surface.
Manifester: Bah! You can hear those guffawing, panting, wheezing humans a hundred corridors away. What Necromancer would not want to lie in wait, with the forces of the depths mustered eager to extinguish their torches, lanterns and shimmering souls….and throw their pathetic card games, euros and other boring games they carry in their overladen bags into a mouldering corner along with their gnawed broken bones?
The previously discussed preoccupation with psychonautical exploration is perhaps best exemplified by Nate’s wildly ambitious title ‘The Mushroom Eaters’ – an experience perhaps even further enmeshed at the margins than its more lauded sibling. It begs the question that as Cave Evil inspired its Necromantic brood, will we yet see the likes of Mushroom Eaters inspire a similar vein of psychedelic themed offerings? Or is the psychedelic experience perhaps too ecstatic, free-form and personal/universal to ever be truly bound to something as earthed as a board game with its need for largely defined guidelines and parse-able rulesets?
Nate: I’m not sure exactly. There are other drug related games out there. I remember when beginning to design I really enjoyed Friedemann Friese and Marcel Merkle’s ‘Funny Friends’, and Splotter has daring titles, plus there’s the history of SPI and Jim Dunnigan’s stuff like ‘Up Against the Wall Motherfucker’. Gaming has a nice history of reaching into far away and daring worlds. I just figured we were doing our job to do this. To be antennas and create.
Jochen: I think it depends on which psychedelic experience it is. There certainly seem to be rules in the other worlds that we sometimes are lucky enough to glimpse into – machine elves and such. Part of the experience then is also trying to understand the rules of these worlds though that is perhaps not really possible, but games create a similar condition in that they let your mind experience some other reality — at least the interesting ones do.
Confinement and Contagion
As the spectre of Covid-19 continues to blanket the earth like a baleful Victorian fog, uncertainty breeds untethered as the efficacy of our institutions is tested and found wanting. With no-one yet sure of what may emerge, how has this impinged or imprinted upon the mindset and mission of these Emperors at large?
Nate: The positive for me is never-ending wargame marathons at my house. The blessing is the ability to contemplate all these wonderful games even more, plus being able to reacquaint myself with movies, and remembering why I enjoyed that medium long ago. Just movies, not these never-ending tv soap operas. The ninety-minute movie. It’s also just a wonderful time to contemplate being. Also family time and getting work done around the house. A negative is the loss of businesses and those that try to rule by fear. A kind of Necromancer’s trick.
Manifester: The Commanders of the Cathode raydiation projections will offer you NO solace. These projections reveal their intentions plainly for all to see: a medical industry that has NEVER helped you to be healthy, a pseudo-world formed of corrupted toxic elements, and lo they add fear to this recipe. We all know: the truth you need is always within, look there then! The future was no less uncertain before this paltry event.
Jochen: Same here. I don’t think times are any less certain than they have always been. I always saw these past decades as playing out the failure of our institutions.
With the limited runs of Cave Evil and Mushroom Eaters long depleted and commanding bowel loosening sums on the resale market as though splinters from the true cross or the fingerbones of martyred saints, have the massed harrowing wails and gnashing of teeth yet echoed in the ears of its fathers? What yet dots the horizon for the EEE?
Nate: A 2021 Cave Evil English reprint is an aim. Also a few other things in the works. The Czech Republic company Fox in the Box is doing a Czech Edition of Cave Evil, also the Spanish company MasQueOca Group is making a Spanish language edition. All of these aiming for 2021. The current time is so goofy and odd that we’ll just have to see a little at a time.
Manifester: Eh I’m just gonna keep playing video games. Fuck it all. Hail Thirteen!
The Furrow and the Future
Once conceived, curated and thrust into the world, all that has been wrought thus far is entrusted to the encoding of the time binding semantic circuit in that brittle dream of legacy. If this trio were to have but one stab at immortality, one title placed on a plinth surrounded by arcane glyphs and offered up as testament, we pondered which form it would take and why?
Nate: It hasn’t yet been made! Gotta keep at it. The whole body of work will tell I imagine. The entire body of Cave Evil games played together are an interesting work even to me.
Manifester: Cave Evil already sits on a plinth surrounded by arcane glyphs in the under depths -demons happy with us for heeding their treatises.
Dive into the pit here.