The idea for ULUS began to grow in late summer 2020, when news filtered out that the Chinese government intended to introduce mandatory education in the Chinese language and script to schools in the province of Inner (or Southern) Mongolia.
At the time, I knew a little about the traditional vertical bichig script of the Mongols: that it was some 800 years old, that it had profound importance to Mongol culture through its association with the Mongol heyday under Chinggis Khan, that it had been all but obliterated by Cyrillic during the Soviet era, at least in Russia and the country of Mongolia, and that Inner Mongolia was its last refuge, and also the sanctuary of the amazing artform of Mongolian calligraphy.
It was also clear that this mandated introduction of Chinese, in a few key classes, was the thin end of the wedge. If the government’s attitude toward the country’s minority cultures had not already been made perfectly clear in its treatment of the Uyghurs, an even grimmer portent had appeared in, of all places, France. A museum in Nantes had been planning an exhibition about Chinggis Khan, assisted by funds from the Chinese government—which suddenly announced that the exhibition must exclude any reference to the historical fact that the Mongols overran China, and in fact must not include the words “Mongol,” “Empire,” and “Chinggis Khan.” (The museum, to its credit, responded by postponing the exhibition indefinitely.)
This was a perfect opportunity for the Endangered Alphabets Project. It was urgent, it was clear, it affected a major world culture, and above all it demonstrated the deep and vital connection between a culture, its language, and its script. The Chinese government, in attempting to suppress the spoken and written Mongolian language, was attempting to suppress the Mongol’s sense of their own identity and value as a people. This is an issue that is happening all over the world, in fact, and this is what the Endangered Alphabets are all about—but in this case it was written, so to speak, in 72 point bold letters. There was no question: we had to do something to help.
But what? T-shirts? Protests? The Mongols in Inner Mongolia were already protesting, displaying hand-painted signs in that gloriously energetic calligraphy. One of them, flourished by a teenage boy, summed their position up perfectly. It read: “A foreign language is a tool; our mother tongue is our soul.” I found a lovely piece of Vermont maple, and began carving it. It wasn’t clear what I might do with the carving, but it had to be made.
At this point, a new voice entered the conversation, and had a decisive effect on the direction we would take. Olgierd Uziemblo, a professor of Chinese in Warsaw, had for some time been one of the Alphabets’ many vital volunteer contributors around the world, every so often offering advice, sending interesting tidbits, asking good questions. He had the advantage of having been to Mongolia as a child, his father having been a diplomat, and as a Pole he had the greater advantage of having lived part of his life under a totalitarian regime. You don’t want to do something that will annoy the Chinese government, he advised. That will only make them take it out on the Mongols. In the end, he said, the totalitarian regime will collapse or go away. You want to give the Mongols something that will help them remember their history and their identity until then. You want to make a game.
I threw myself into researching Mongol history, looking for anything the Chinese might try to erase, and anything that might fascinate a Western audience that, like me, knew very little about the Mongols and, if anything, still clung to 800-year-old stereotypes based on fear and prejudice.
Everything I found was fascinating, but one item in particular caught my attention. Apparently the creation of the largest contiguous land empire the world has ever known caused a crisis of identity among the Mongols. Now they had everything, now they could do anything and be anything, who did they want to be? Did they want to cleave to their traditional nomadic roots, or did they want to become a more European city-based people? And was this question still nagging at the Mongol soul, all these centuries later?
And out of that thought came the name of the game: Ulus, meaning nation, country, or land—a concept as important and mystical to Mongols as the eternal blue sky.
At this point I reached out to Jovan Ellis. When I was teaching at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont, he was working on his MFA in Emergent Media, creating a tablet-based game that would teach Mongolian calligraphy, called The Manggus after a mythical monster. He not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of games, he had also researched widely into the rich and colorful realm of Mongolian mythology.
He and Olgierd (“Call me Oleš, rhymes with Polish”) became key partners. Oleš insisted the game needed to include Naadam, the summer festival that is central to Mongol life, sport, storytelling and horse-trading; Jovan suggested the idea of collecting assets and became our principal tester. Hilko Drude, the most full-time gamer I know, offered to act as rules editor, and a series of Mongolians, especially Tee Tsetsendelger, joined our circle to act as cultural advisers, to correct mistakes, and in the process to reinforce the sense that we were doing something worthwhile. And while all this was going on, a group of people in Mongolia led by Begzsuren Jamsranjav were advising us on traditional Mongol games and helping to design–and then sewing—the game mats.
For me the game was always going to be a nomadic roam through the Mongol lands featuring a cast of characters that blended history and mythology, with some echoes of mechanics from card games such as poker and Hearts, and a central role being played by the ancient sheep knucklebones called shagai.
And I wanted the playing surface to be a mat that could be pulled together with a drawstring and hung on a hook or slung over the pommel of a saddle. I had no idea that Mongolians actually do play on game mats that have drawstrings, and when I found out, it seemed as though a conceptual drawstring had pulled the whole thing together.
We hope it will be fun, and something more than fun.
Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and the author of the Atlas of Endangered Alphabets. His carvings of letters, words, phrases and proverbs in indigenous and minority scripts have been exhibited at over 150 colleges, universities, libraries, galleries, and museums, including Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, First Nations University, the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.
He began inventing games for his daughter’s Halloween parties, and he may still be the only person to have created a Donner Party board game.