“It’s just a pun that got really out of hand,” award-winning game designer Grant Howitt said as he attempted to explain the inspiration behind Eat the Reich. Last year, sometime around Gen Con, as he was on some plane ride or another from Indianapolis to England, probably sleep-deprived, definitely exhausted, he texted a friend. “I was thinking ‘eat the reich,’ sounds like ‘eat the rich’... The impetus was not any deeper than that.”
As of this writing, Eat the Reich has raised over $250,000 on Kickstarter. It’s got a good pitch: play as Inglourious Basterds but you’re vampires. The punny premise might have come easily, but according to Howitt, the design process was a little more arduous. Eat the Reich was originally supposed to be a Powered by the Apocalypse game—the now-ubiquitous indie system design based on Apocalypse World by D. Vincent and Meguey Baker that uses narrative-based Moves, a 2D6 fail/mixed success/full success drive system, and emphasizes low-prep, high-stakes roleplaying. But it wasn’t quite working for this game, which needed extreme focus. “After significantly more playtests than I’m used to, I went back to a game I wrote in 2004, Havoc Brigade.”
Havoc Brigade follows a group of orcs as they go from place to place and generally behave like menaces. Howitt described it as “a violent Saturday morning cartoon.” He also said it’s his favorite game to play that he’s written. “The gag for Havoc Brigade is that none of the other characters want you to be there, but you’ve snuck in.” It makes gameplay tense and exciting, adding to the noise of the singular goal: attempt to kidnap a prince.
Eat the Reich uses the same system as Havoc Brigade, which Howitt calls the Havoc Engine—which is, in turn, based on an even older game called Wushu. Wushu was the first game Howitt ran as an adult, and he said that it “ruined him” for other games, especially tactical, purely statistic-based TTRPGs: “The details that you put forward [while playing] shape the narrative as you go on.” Eat the Reich, Howitt explained, uses a more refined, “gamier” version of the Havoc Engine that encourages you to keep the action fast and makes you feel accomplished when you do something mechanically clever.
Another quirk of Eat the Reich is that it’s written with six pregenerated characters to use during play, rather than built-in character generation. Each character is “four lines and a list of abilities,” and is, in Howitt’s words, just enough so that “you can get the joke and then start telling it yourself.” With this kind of structure Howitt was able to write a game that “does one thing, loudly, very well.” Having these characters also prompted Howitt to play with the fiction of the game, which in turn gives players space to play off these characters in interesting ways in their own games.
Here’s where Maz Hamilton, one of the producers at Rowan, Rook & Decard, crashed the interview and talked at length about the company of “paper perverts” they’ve employed to create their gorgeous books. After diving into the details of endpapers and spot gloss, Hamilton explained how Lady Blackbird—a one-shot game by John Harper, who’s much more well known for his heist game Blades in the Dark—is the high bar of games that ask players to use pre-generated characters. Lady Blackbird gives prompts and character arcs that can be “unlocked” through gameplay, giving people room to explore different facets of the game through different facets of the character.
After discussing Harper for a while (professional admiration all around as we decided he was wonderfully clever, and we were all grateful he only made one game every three years or nobody else would be in business) Hamilton gently bullied Howitt out of the chair and sat down. “Has he talked about queer catharsis yet?”
No, I tell them.
Hamilton immediately leaned in. “I think there are an absolute ton of people from marginalized groups for whom the idea of adopting, even embracing, a monstrous-ness and embracing a monstrous identity in order to violently commit direct antifascist action is an extremely relevant thing right now.” They lean back, dead serious. “And I am one of those people.”
Typically a behind-the-scenes powerhouse, Hamilton has no problem talking about this aspect of Eat the Reich. The cathartic fantasy of being a monster. There are so many games out there that dive deep into this exact fantasy; Here, There, Be Monsters and Monsterhearts are two examples. And while Howitt says that he didn’t write Eat the Reich with the intention of creating a game that could be used to enact queer fantasy power play, it’s apparent that he stumbled into resonant thematic queerness, and Hamilton isn’t about to let a happy accident stop them from pursuing metaphor.
Vampires, as a monster, are loaded with queerness, and have been explicitly queer coded since before Dracula got popular. (Who here has read Carmilla?) Hamilton explained that Eat the Reich has “explicitly embraced” some of the tropes that can be drawn between vampires and gay men and gender nonconforming people and goes, “Yeah, what of it, motherfucker?”
There’s another catch to vampires. Besides queerness, a lot of anti-Semitic dog whistles have parallels to the way that people talk about vampires and the way that vampires are portrayed. Hamilton mentions that they worked with a group of cultural and sensitivity consultants (including James Mendez Hodes, Oliver Hoffmann, Marta Palvarini, and Rue Dickey) in an attempt to directly subvert these anti-Semitic tropes. Another complication with vampires playing into anti-Semitic tropes is the fact that Eat the Reich is about killing Nazis during World War II, at a time when Jewish people were being systematically killed throughout Europe under the Third Reich.
“It’s weird to be moderately controversial and publicly visible,” he said. He’s talking about the fact that some people became critics of Eat the Reich almost as soon as the Kickstarter went live, concerned that anti-Semitic tropes are at play within the premise. In particular, blood libel—the canard that Jewish people allegedly murder Christians in order to use their blood to perform various rituals—seemed to come up often in online conversations. But Howitt was thinking about the problems inherent in the premise since nearly the beginning of the game, and “it became clear that we were going to have to get some help.”
While Eat the Reich will maintain the gory mean streak promised with the electric illustrations by Will Kirkby, it’s clear that Howitt did not take a funny title to mean that he could be flip with the entire premise. “I think that we have tried really hard,” he said after spending five minutes outlining how he worked with the consultants. “And not everyone is going to be happy with it. It is not sensitive. It is not sensible,” he said. “There are games about World War II which are thoughtful and sensitive. And this isn’t that.”
It’s a balancing act. Howitt explained that the team aimed to thread the needle, so to speak, between “We want to make this thing which is tacky and over the top and garish and a bit sexy and a bit exploitative, and knowingly subverting all those things. But we don’t want to upset people we like. We don’t want to upset anyone we respect. And we don’t want to harm marginalized groups for that work.”
The fact is that Eat the Reich is a game about tasteless, over-the-top, ultraviolence and sexy vampires. “James [Hodes] actually wrote a couple pages into the book about how not to be a bad person while playing this game,” he explained. In addition to Jewish readers, he spoke with experts on facism and the man who translated Achtung! Cthulhu into German. He did not want to fuck this up. “I think as a sensible human being and as a conscious human being, and in today’s environment the only decent thing to do is to ask people who have some greater touchstone to the things they’re writing about, and just checking to make sure that we were doing okay on this.”
Howitt reiterated, again, that he knows he’s not going to please everyone. But he’s not writing this game to be an instigator; he’s writing this game because even though it started as a vampire pun about killing Nazis, what he ended up with was a cathartic horror-comedy about finding justice while also becoming your own worst nightmare.
“The harder you push horror, the more comedy you want. And the more comedy you get, the harder horror hits. And it just works as a cycle of comfort and creativity in comedy and then being absolutely shut down and thinking, there’s nothing sacred, there’s nothing sacrosanct. You are absolutely vulnerable and you will die.” This is par for the course for Howitt—death is a common theme of his work. But despite thinking about death quite a lot, he’s still sticking around and writing games. “Playing with both horror and comedy is fun and exciting.”
There’s a line here: how far can you push comedy before it becomes genuinely horrific? How much dark comedy can any single book handle? How much horror are you responsible for? Eat the Reich is, in turns, sensitive and desensitizing; cathartic and tacky; considerate and tasteless. Howitt is a designer who has thought a lot about how he wants his work to be played and who his work gives power to. And in Eat the Reich he’s finally asking if you—the player—are ready to take that power back, and what you’re willing to do to keep it.
Eat the Reich is fully funded and will be available to back on Kickstarter through September 13.
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