Game Companies of the past, part 11, Gray Giant Games

Transcript of the podcast published on February 25th, 2011.

After 10 segments about game companies of the past I want to add a bonus segment about a company that nobody of you has ever heard of, probably: Gray Giant Games.

Gray Giant Games was the brainchild of Tim Bedford and Lisa Peterson, 2 students of MIT who were caught by the Fantasy Roleplaying game craze of the 70s. They both became avid game masters to their game group, the MITfits, and revered for their colourful and literary campaigns that spanned whole worlds. Soon enough they became tired of some of the clichés of D&D, especially the munchkin like amassment of XP’s and levels. This is how “Foragers into the Unknown” was born, their first roleplaying game, a radical reinvention of the RPG genre with an ingenious combat system that was elegant and realistic at the same time. “Foragers” had some success in gaming circles and soon Tim and Lisa began to professionally package their product, naming their company after the first monster they had invented for their game, and to sell it at gaming conventions. This was about the time their first daughter was born, so they lacked time and especially money to really run the publicity that sells a product to a bigger audience, but in specialist circles their fame increased. Soon 2 supplements followed: “Foragers into Space”, and “Foragers into Horror”, both equally excellent RPG’s.

At this point they noticed that they had less and less time to be GM’s, but their players wanted to adventure on in “Bellaphon”, their fantasy roleplaying world. Long before paragraph adventures were invented they thought of a role playing game that needed no Game Master and could be enjoyed by a whole group. This is how “Endless Adventure” was born, a truly unique fantasy board game that could be enjoyed by 1 to many players, and that is only rivaled by “Magic Realm” in atmosphere and scope.

In “Endless Adventure” the game simulates a complex dungeon expedition. The dungeon is randomly created during the game, but there are also certain predetermined quests that fit into the bigger game, much like today’s fantasy computer games are designed. “Endless Adventure” could be played either in short or continuous sessions, as a never ending campaign that also enabled players to develop characters, an idea that was later also realized in “Warhammer Quest”, but in a much simpler way. “Endless Adventure” is a truly magnificent, albeit complex game. Its biggest bonus was its expandability – in later supplements players could explore the wilderness, cityscapes and the sea. It was also possible for them to engage in world politics, to wage wars or to found a shop and sell their treasures. With each expansion – all of which are hard if not impossible to find nowadays – the game became richer and deeper, nearly reaching philosophical dimensions. Some players are still playing this game and have not yet explored every part of it.

Encouraged by this success the now husband and wife team thought about new ways to use their creativity. This is how one of the weirdest games in existence was created: “Serenade”, a game with a completely empty board and no rules to start with. Through a complex web of secret decisions, bidding and alliances the game was literally created on the spot – when you started the game you didn’t know yet if you would end up playing an economical game, an abstract strategy game, a historical simulation or a racing game. The only thing one could set up at the beginning was the game length, which could be anything from 30 minutes to many hours. The theme of the game would be decided by the wishes of the players, so that every player would play the game he or she liked the most in the end. “It’s an experience, not a game” was the tagline, and the revolutionary concepts behind this game were never equaled. Unfortunately a great part of “Serenade”s first print run was burnt in a mysterious fire and only a few copies have survived.

But Gray Giant Games was just starting it’s great run: The next game was simply called “Euro”, and was the pinnacle of European board games design: an elegant, incredibly thought-through design that gave each player the possibility to win until the very last moment without invoking the least of luck, but which was also – a feat that not all Euro Games manage – highly thematic and full of weird and crazy humour, with players trying to create the perfect European parliament, an impossible task as every European knows.

Tim had dabbled in wargames now and then, so he started a new project that was supposed to revolutionize the wargaming world: “Waterloo 3000” was the most ambitious wargame ever produced: a double blind game using ingenious hidden movement and doing away with any combat tables and odds, instead using an intricate paragraph system like in fantasy gamebooks to decide the outcome of a battle. The accompanying “battle book” indeed had 3000 entries, and few players have explored them all.

After that Lisa Peterson approached another, nearly impossible task: to create a witty party game for intelligent people that doesn’t embarrass and doesn’t bore. The result of this was “Betty Boop”, a game so fast and furious that it was impossible to not break out into wild laughter during it. One reviewer literally said that this game was so much fun that it could revive a coma patient.

Slowly a trend became clear: Gray Giant Games took on established game genres and tried to create the best possible game for it. But there were factors which always stood in their success: Tim getting a professorship at MIT and Lisa getting the Nobel prize for her work at the decryption of the human genome. Not out of failure but simply because they had no more time for their games, Gray Giant Games closed business in 1987.

And they lived happily everafter, like in a fairy tale. Like in this segment.