An interview with Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and principal creator of the game ULUS: Legends of the Nomads.
First all all—what does “Ulus” mean?
“Ulus” means “nation,” or “land,” or “home”—it’s a word that has a very powerful resonance for Mongol people. Their connection to the land, and to what they call the Eternal Blue Sky above their lands, is more than geographic—it’s spiritual.
Speaking of spiritual, how do the Mongol gods factor into the game?
Well, the whole concept is based on an actual historical event. When Chinggis Khaan had created the largest land empire the world has ever known, stretching from Poland to Korea, he and his descendants were faced with a dilemma: who do we want to be? Do we want to carry on being nomadic people of the steppes, or do we want to become city-dwellers? In the game, each god (except one—I’ll explain in a minute) has a different view of how the vast Mongol lands should be used, and in a sense therefore a vision for the future of the Mongol soul. One wants a traditional culture of nomadic self-sufficiency; one wants a culture of commerce and trade; one wants an empire based on learning, and another on spirituality. The odd one out is Lobsogoi, who is sort of the Mongol equivalent of Loki. He just likes to mess with people and create chaos. As I Greek mythology, the quarrels of the gods are played out on the human chessboard, and in the case of ULUS, each god is represented on Earth by a champion.
Can you tell us something about the champions?
Sure! Some are taken from mythology, like the epic hero Geser, and we couldn’t leave out Chinggis Khan, who is a half real, half-mythic figure. The ones that really surprised me were the real historical figures, such as Khutulun, the noblewoman wrestler who challenged her suitors to wrestle with her for her hand, and defeated them all; and Sorghaghtani Beki, who may have been the most powerful woman in the history of the world, and Zanabazar, who completely defies the Mongol stereotype: he was a holy man, a sculptor and poet, and he created an alphabet for the Mongolian language.
So what do the champions do?
In the first phase of the game, the champions travel around the Mongol lands in a sort of caravan, moving (like true nomads) with the seasons. Each season they move to another sacred site, where there are monsters guarding assets—each asset card being some commodity a god might need to establish their own particular Ulus. The champions, either alone or working together, try to defeat the monsters and win assets. But they are also busy trading assets and trying to prevent each other from acquiring the assets they need.
Where did the monsters come from? Did you make them up?
No, nothing in the game is made up—by us, at least! They are all taken from Mongolian mythology, from the Mongolian Death Worm, which is a bit like the giant sandworm in the Tremors movies, through demons and evil gods to the steel ravens and human-sized mosquitoes who are said to have attacked the epic hero Geser in his cradle. He killed them, of course, like baby Hercules strangling snakes.
How are the shagai used?
Shagai are traditionally used for two purposes: for divination, like the bones that are rolled and then read in the I Ching, and for children’s games, like marbles or jacks. We use them both ways. In the first half of the game the players roll them to get good luck or favor from their gods; when the champions get to Naadam, though, the shagai are used to play the archery, horse racing and wrestling games. So the first phase of the game uses them for strategy, but the second challenges the player’s physical dexterity and skill in rolling or flicking them.
What kind of input did you have from Mongolians?
We have a variety of Mongolians involved at every stage. In the beginning we needed help with Mongolian culture, and making sure whatever we did was respectful and accurate; then two of the four illustrators who created the cards were Mongolian; and then the game mats and shagai actually came from Mongolia—we have great photos of people sewing the mats in their tents, which are called yurts or ger. And the mats are made by hand out of felt, which is the same material they use to make their ger!
What are your hopes for the future, or rather for the future of the game?
We have three different kinds of hopes. First of all, we hope the game will open people’s eyes and their curiosity about the Mongol people, overturn a few stereotypes, and maybe get some people interested in learning the language or appreciating Mongolian calligraphy. Second, we hope we’ll be able to find a business partner or investor who will have the resources to be able to give the game a broader exposure and a more public life. And finally, we really hope to partner with an entrepreneur in Mongolia who will bring out a Mongolian version, with the rules and the cards in Cyrillic and/or the traditional Mongolian script. That would really help to reconnect them with their history and culture and rekindle a sense of cultural pride in the Mongol homelands.