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Designer Diary: Doubt Is Our Product, or A Game About Tobacco Disinformation

by Amabel Holland

When I close my eyes and try to picture my father, I see him with a cigarette.

Both of my parents smoked constantly. I grew up in houses with yellowing walls. I spent Friday nights with my parents in smoke-filled bingo halls and bowling alleys. One of my regular chores at home would be to sift through grocery bags stuffed with empty cigarette packs to clip out Marlboro points so that my mother could get a new baseball cap or tote bag. The sickly stale stink of it was everywhere, and it wasn’t until I was an adult, living for the first time in a smoke-free space, that I stopped having problems breathing, smelling, tasting. I had just thought that was what air smelled like, what food tasted like.

Of course by that time my father was dead. Lung cancer. He was thirty-eight. I saw him die.

It was early on a Sunday morning. I had been dreaming about something, although I don’t remember what — but at some point in the dream, I heard my mother screaming in the distance, and when I jolted awake, she was still screaming. It was coming from the living room. From my father’s hospice bed.

My two brothers, with whom I shared a single room on the second floor, were still asleep. Alone, I headed down the stairs, toward my mother’s voice.

“No, Tom, don’t leave us,” she cried over and over again, repeating it until the words seemed to lose their meaning.

His body convulsed. He vomited profusely. It was yellow and red and black: bile, blood, organ tissue, and fecal matter all over his face and chest. It was violent, and ugly. And when it stopped, my mother doubled over, pressing her face against him, sobbing uncontrollably into the wet puddle.

When I picture my mother, I see her with a cigarette, too. More than that, I can hear her voice. I don’t remember what my father sounded like, but my mother, I remember the hoarse cough lurking in her laughter.

She kept smoking after he died. In fact, she told me often, before his death and after, that she didn’t think the smoking caused the cancer. That somehow, the doctors had “put” the cancer inside his lungs, like they had her grandfather, the firefighter. And she believed, firmly, that there was no proof smoking caused cancer because of a fifty-year campaign of disinformation used by the tobacco industry to avoid culpability for a hundred million deaths.

After they took the body away, my mother spent the day slowly smoking one cigarette after another in the basement. I gave her a wide berth, as did my siblings. Late in the afternoon, I finally went down to see her. The rage of her grief had mellowed into something bitter and flat.

I asked her how she was doing, and she looked at me like I had just asked the stupidest fucking question in the world. “How do you think I’m doing?”

I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I sputtered an apology. I wanted to leave, but my body froze.

Then she told me it was our fault. Me and my siblings. That if we hadn’t been born, my father wouldn’t have been under such stress. If we hadn’t been such terrible, ungrateful children, he wouldn’t have smoked.

It was the only time I ever heard her admit that it had been the smoking. The only time that she ever acknowledged that she knew she was lying.

I can trace my lifelong interest in disinformation to that conversation. What makes people susceptible to it, how pernicious it is to disrupt, how people choose to sincerely believe things they know aren’t true, returning to it even after admitting they were wrong. It was something that concerned me, something that fascinated me, something that made me sad and angry: sad for the people who believed the lies, and angry at the people who spread them – who did so deliberately, knowing the harm it would cause, knowing the human cost. That interest certainly became sharper these last few years as disinformation became an existential threat.

Our world is boiling while the corporations responsible deny consensus, ask for “more research”, and fund “studies” by cranks and fools. The narrative there has shifted to one of personal responsibility, each of us individually tracking our carbon footprint while on an industrial level – the only level that actually matters — nothing changes.

Politicians openly traffic in deranged conspiracy theories, encouraging their followers to take violent action against their opponents for imagined crimes. Vaccination – one of our most important tools as a society for preventing the spread of disease – has become another signifier of our ongoing culture war. Bad actors try to shift the narrative to a matter of personal choice, ignoring that choosing not to be vaccinated endangers others, just as smokers ignored the effects of secondhand smoke on those around them.

And certainly, I am intensely aware of the way disinformation about queer and trans people is used to justify our marginalization, oppression, and eradication.

And the people responsible will remain unencumbered by guilt or consequence. The tobacco industry continues to take in annual profits of over a hundred billion dollars while being responsible for killing eight million people a year, targeting children and the marginalized, especially in impoverished and developing countries where their marketing is largely unconstrained.

(Not) Working On The Game

When someone asks, “Where’d the idea for Doubt Is Our Product come from?”, the answer is: all of this. My personal history, my anger, my frustration, my despair. Unsurprisingly, that’s where all my more political games come from. When I work on those games, I am steeped in those emotions for months at a time. Often, I need to immerse myself in dozens of primary sources from the period – reading that feeds my bitterness and depression. It has a severe effect on my mental and emotional health, strains my personal relationships, and generally makes me unpleasant to be around.

And I know this going in, every single time. It’s the cost of making these things — and in the case of this project, I knew the cost would be higher than before, that the game would take more out of me, so I pushed it back. I first started talking about the game in 2018, as I was finishing up work on This Guilty Land, with the idea that it would be the end-of-the-year “prestige” game for Hollandspiele‘s 2020 sale.

Instead, that game ended up being The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America. The Vote charts two things in parallel: the struggle for women’s suffrage, and the oppression of Black Americans under Jim Crow. The first was achieved by allowing the second – the movement that sprung out of abolition abandoning its roots. It seeks to both celebrate and condemn – to recognize the achievement, and also its incompleteness. Key to this model is the unequal nature of interference between the two players: Equality and Suppression. Suppression opposes Equality in her pursuit of suffrage, but Equality leaves Suppression to its own devices.

Completing this game helped me firm up what Doubt Is Our Product would look like. Like The Vote, I wanted it to be an expression of both triumph and despair. Triumph, because anti-smoking activism did win, and despair, because the tobacco industry didn’t lose – not in any meaningful way. And I thought I could take The Vote’s structure, of two opposed sides playing their respective “games” in parallel, but with key if unequal points of intersection, even further and more literally. Each side would play their own game, with their own mechanisms, rules, and components – two completely different kinds of games: an economic deck-builder for the tobacco industry, and a market-based political tableau builder for the anti-smoking movement.

And as I was putting The Vote through its paces in early 2020, I fully expected Doubt Is Our Product to be my next “big” game, releasing at the end of 2021, but then a funny thing happened. It turned out I was a woman this whole time? And nobody told me? Rude.

I assumed, correctly, that while I was redefining every aspect of my personality and my entire conception of myself that probably I shouldn’t also be spending months working on a game that would leave me angry and depressed all the time. This was doubly true once I started hormone replacement therapy, giving me the emotional regulation of a teenage girl. Not the best time to put myself through the wringer.

Instead, I switched my attention to Nicaea. I like to joke that in making the game, I processed my religious trauma with dumb middle-school jokes, then a bunch of people gave me fifty bucks for it. And while that’s largely true, the ability to use humor – something which would be wholly inappropriate for a game like Doubt or The Vote – and the fact that I didn’t need to immerse myself in documents filled with virulent racism, misogyny, or ghoulishness meant that it was a relatively breezy affair.

It also helped that Nicaea was the first game I designed on estrogen. Up until that point, my brain was foggy. It was difficult to focus, and everything always took so much effort. My work up until that point certainly reflected this, but once I started dissolving tiny blue pills under my tongue, all that just fell away. I was able to think clearly for the first time in my life. As a result, Nicaea was very streamlined and approachable. It made its argument more directly and succinctly than my previous “message” games – it hit the mark I was always clumsily aiming for with my earlier work. That made me reasonably confident I could do the same with Doubt Is Our Product – that I could model the dynamics with a minimum of mechanical fuss.

That’s not the only thing the design borrowed from Nicaea. That game is a tableau builder in which you flip cards face down to buy or play other cards. Those cards are bought from a market, and each market space has an action that you trigger with your purchase. That basic structure would form the core of the activist side of the game.

And so, huge parts of this game built on the work I did with The Vote and Nicaea. If I had started working on Doubt Is Our Product immediately, none of those elements would be present. It’d be a very different design, and a lesser one at that. Sometimes the best thing for a game is to not work on it – not yet, anyway.

By the summer of 2022, I had been on HRT for over a year. I had enjoyed my self-imposed break from big depressing serious games, dedicating my time to baubles and diversions like Eyelet, Watch Out! That’s a Dracula!, and the co-designed Dinosaur Gauge.

But I also felt ready to do things that were more ambitious. It was at this time that I was entering the home stretch of my work on Endurance, my bleak solitaire game about the Shackleton expedition. and began talking with Wil Alambre about the cast of monsters for Kaiju Table Battles, my queer giant monster legacy game. Both of these would be released in 2023, and would be some of my most ambitious and experimental designs in recent years, but that still left the question of what was going to be our last game for 2023 – traditionally, the one that garners the most attention and drives purchases during our big end-of-year Hollandays Sale. And that’s when I decided that it was time to finally get to work on Doubt Is Our Product.

Research

As with my other political games, the first step was research. My interest in the subject had led me to read several books over the years, but one that I found particularly compelling was Allan Brandt’s The Cigarette Century. I returned to that book, using it as a jumping-off point to other resources. I also spent quite some time sifting through tobacco industry documents – a fraction of the fourteen million that were made public as a result of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Highlights include discussions of how to better target and pressure children to take up smoking, a proposal to increase market share among queer people and the homeless (contemptuously dubbed “Project SCUM”), and the memorandum “Smoking and Health Proposal”, from which the game takes its title:

Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

All this took the expected toll on my emotional and mental health. For the months that I was immersed in it, I was just full of despair and anger. So angry that sometimes I was paralyzed by it – I couldn’t speak, couldn’t give it expression. Words were too small for it. I felt hollowed out. Drained. I started having trouble sleeping. I became moody and restless, less patient with those around me.

And I was happy to be done with the research phase, but of course I wasn’t really “done” with it. As I put the game together, I had to go back to the research frequently throughout, so for as long as I was working on the game, I was still paying the price of it.

But. Like I said. I knew that going in. I had been there before. Did it go smoother this time than in the past, as I had hoped? Yes, it did. There was none of the incoherent grasping that had defined my earliest “message” games, but it was still a hell that I knew I was inflicting on myself. Even revisiting that process here is kicking at the hornet’s nest; the last couple days as I’ve been writing this, I’ve felt irritable and restless. There’s a reason I didn’t write one of these for This Guilty Land or The Vote.

Game As Semicolon

The trickiest thing was designing a game that functioned as a semicolon: two independent halves, each with its own internal logic, dynamics, and series of challenges, that together created a new thing.

With the tableau builder for the activist side I found myself in somewhat familiar territory. As I said, I built it on the basic mechanism of Nicaea. There was more to it than that, of course. Nicaea’s tableau is all about generating and spending influence, and is in service of its stock game; its market actions reflected that. Here, the market actions would see the player combating disinformation and agitating for legislation, and the strength of the action would be dictated by the face-up cards within one’s tableau. And so, flipping them face down to buy a new card from the market, taking the associated action, created a tension as you might be reducing the strength of that action in order to take it. Managing that, finding ways to flip cards back, would be key, as it was in Nicaea.

In Nicaea, the size of your tableau can vary but is largely limited by the fact that three to five other players all compete for the same small pool of cards — but there’s only one player tableau-building here, and once that player got above a certain number of cards, the tension created by flipping cards dissipated: you’d have plenty to do whatever you needed.

So I capped the tableau size at eight. This meant that to add a new card to your tableau, you’d need to remove one – shifting your focus in pursuit of your competing aims, balancing the concerns of the disparate groups making up your coalition.

By comparison, the deck-building game I built for the industry player was a bit more sprawling, accounting for most of the cards and the majority of the game’s table space. Each card in your hand generates some amount of Budget, which is spent (discarded) both to play cards for their actions and to buy new cards from the market, adding them to your discard pile. The card market itself is made up of five standard card stacks, and seven special ones, the latter chosen randomly from a pool of sixteen.

Cards can be played either for a standard immediate action, or into your reserve – a row of cards that stays in front of you until your deck is exhausted. These cards either have passive effects or are triggered by the play of subsequent cards – you could, for example, trigger that effect several turns in a row. Once it’s time to reshuffle, your reserve is trashed – it’s the primary way you remove cards from your deck. The actions themselves are mostly concerned with increasing the number of victims so as to eventually generate profit, and to protect those profits by spreading disinformation.

The industry side of the game is called the Company, but I came very, very close to calling it Capitalism because the tobacco industry isn’t exceptional. The way it pursued profits at the expense of human lives wasn’t some kind of mustache-twirling villainy. It is the consequence of capitalism and its incentives. And even if I ultimately decided to swerve from the name, I did want to reflect those incentives – the unsustainable and amoral pursuit of maximum profits, of infinite growth.

And so, the catch: playing and buying cards is mandatory. On each turn, the Company player must play at least one card and buy at least one card. If you’re unable to do so – if you don’t have enough Budget to do both, or if there are no cards in the market left to buy – you lose the game. You’re able to buy cards from your trash pile, but it always must be the topmost card, and it is purchased it at a premium.

One of the standard cards that might be added to your deck as a result of your opponent’s legislative agitation is Restrictions – a card that provides no Budget and costs a tremendous amount to play, for no tangible benefit. That legislation might also ban the play of specific cards, increasing the chance that you’ll draw a hand that is unplayable, causing you to lose the game.

The Company can oppose this through the use of Lobbyists, peeling off Profits (i.e., your victory points) to make those legislative goals more difficult to achieve, so you can’t just pursue your victory conditions – you need to spend time and resources slowing down your opponent. Likewise, the activist player can’t only concentrate on that legislation, but must work to convince your victims of the danger of smoking – but only after they debunk your disinformation. Reflecting reality, it takes considerably greater effort to debunk than it does to put it out into the world.

It’s at these points of intersections that the game makes its arguments about disinformation and the corrupting nature of capitalism – something that neither “game” could do on its own. That’s why I haven’t provided a solitaire mode that allows you to play only one side unopposed. I did give it quite serious thought, but ultimately decided against it.

Playtesting

Playtesting took place over much of 2023. The basic structure remained the same with some minor tweaks to player victory thresholds. The most substantive changes were made to a handful of the Company’s cards. It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that making a deck-builder for the first time is difficult, and that when you’re coming up with a wide variety of card effects they’re not going to be perfectly balanced right out of the gate.

Mostly this was a matter of the math being off. This card cost too much for what it did, or that one cost too little, making the card too powerful. Costs were bumped up or down by one or two, and in some cases the actions were modified to make a given card less dominant.

I’m sure if I were a more mathematically-minded designer, the kind of gal who has a bunch of formulas and spreadsheets and determines that this action is worth 1.5 points and that one 1.75, that I would have avoided some of those pitfalls. But maybe not? I remember talking to John Bohrer, the original publisher and developer for Irish Gauge, about some of my math anxiety when I submitted that game, and he said, in essence, that there is no secret math to game design. You put something together, you try it out, you see what works or what doesn’t, then you make changes and try again. That’s when you apply the math to the problem – to figure out what went wrong, not to prevent it from happening in the first place. At any rate, the corrected cards worked a treat.

Aesthetics

Concurrent with this process, I was finalizing the game’s presentation: the rulebook, the tokens, the display sheets, the card layouts. Here I chose deliberately not to immerse players, but to alienate them.

It’s easy to imagine a version of the game that has lots of vintage art in service of a slick presentation mimicking the Madison Avenue campaigns used by these ghouls to profit off the death of millions, a game that in its form reflects and thus subverts the seductive lie at the heart of the industry.

But I didn’t really see the purpose of that. It strikes me as the kind of formal affectation that the occupants of a college dorm room would find deep. I think given the seriousness of the game’s subject matter that if you’re buying it, you’re not a child asking to be dazzled or inveigled, so I stripped away all euphemism. That’s the reason why I call them “Victims” instead of “Customers”. From the point of view of the industry, wouldn’t they have called them customers? Yeah, they would, but who cares about their point of view? A hundred million dead, while they lied through their teeth. To hell with them. To hell with anyone who asks about their point of view.

Identification and immersion are tools, and like all tools, they’re well-suited for some purposes but not for others. I’ve used them many times before in my career and will do so again, but here, alienation is the hammer of choice. A blunt instrument, ugly, inelegant. The components for the company player are drab and functional, stark and uninviting. For the most part, their cards have been stripped of specificity: Journalism, not Edward Murrow; Mascots, not Joe Camel; Lifestyle Branding, not Marlboro Rewards.

This is in contrast with the movement. Here, each card is named for something specific, explained in flavor text. Hand-sketched icons dance across soft blues and purples. If I wanted the company to feel brutish and alien, I wanted the movement to feel human. To be, in its own way, immersive.

Conclusion

All that’s left now is to release the damn thing. There’s an anxiety to that. There always is, putting a new game out into the world, especially one that’s important to me — but there’s also a relief. I have lived with this game for years. True, many of those were spent only in uneasy anticipation of self-inflicted suffering. Putting it off until I couldn’t any longer. Then going through it.

I don’t know whether I have any more of these in me, these big depressing angry political things. They’re the ones people seem to like the best, that garner the most attention and admiration. Just my luck.

Each game like this takes something from me. Something that I won’t get back. I’m happier once on the other side of it, but I feel smaller than I was going in. And of course there’s always the disquieting voice asking if it’s worth it.

I hope so.

Amabel Holland

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