Interview: Andrew Sheerin on The Hen Commandments

The Hen Commandments Interview
Usually the most controversial thing that happens in the board gaming world is the forums on Board Game Geek getting upset that their latest board game needs a mobile phone app but eight years ago Terror Bull Games courted genuine controversy when they decided to make a board game about the War on Terror. Now Terror Bull Games are back with The Hen Commandments a game where you take spiritual guidance from a chicken.

First of tell us about Hen Commandments and why we should back it?
The Hen Commandments is a chicken-based, religion-building party game. That alone will probably either persuade or dissuade you from going any further. Someone described it as a cross between Cards Against Humanity and the Flying Spaghetti Monster and while that tells you nothing about how it’s played, it’s not a bad description for the feel of it. 
Essentially you’re disciples of a Holy Chicken that is issuing forth commandments written on special eggs. It’s up to you to work out the true meaning of these commandments and then persuade the rest of the disciples that your own particular vision is the right one. Because of the modular way in which the commandments are built (six decks of cards, each with a word or phrase-part on), you’re always going to get something different. 
If you want to get an idea of just how much fun that bit alone is, check out the Holy Chicken Wisdom Generator (™) on our website:  Also, it’s funny. It’s very very funny. I’ve laughed myself to the point of illness playing The Hen Commandments. 

Similar to Cards Against Humanity I assume THC works best with large groups (and some alcohol) was the intention to make a party game form the start?
The game can be played with four players and up. We've played with a classroom of 22, where people played in pairs - that was surprisingly successful. I think it's best with around 6-8 personally. The origins of The Hen Commandments comes from a larger game about corruption: I was working on a mechanism for the President player to create new rules in the game, but I wanted some lee-way in the interpretation of those rules so that people could be strong-armed into signing up to a specific interpretation, even if it was evident the rules didn't really mean that. 
Anyway, this got so complicated and I suddenly thought - this is a game in itself. It's possibly the only game I've designed where the theme came second.  As soon as it had a confused religious theme and it felt a bit "naughty" to play, it was quite obviously a party game. From that point onwards it was largely tested (and developed) down the pub.
The Hen Commandments boardgame
Your games stay clear of the typical board game clichés, what influences your choice of theme for games?
I look at “newsy” themes I guess, or not even consciously thinking of games, I just like to hoover up information on stuff that’s of interest and those things tend to relate to politics, sociology, philosophy, economics - basically what’s going on in the world. It has to be an issue that’s worth exploring, where there’s something to reveal. So climate change isn’t a great idea for a radical, political game because there’s really no game there: we’re all fucked. Play again. 
But the worldwide economic crisis presented plenty of opportunity. With Crunch we approached that like a thesis almost. We wanted a deliberately broken game that would show you can’t have stability with a model that demands infinite growth from finite resources. Throw into the mix people’s natural greed, the opportunity for corruption and self-service and you exacerbate the flaws of the system a hundred-fold. That’s all Crunch is - it’s a test-your-own-greed meter.  Also, the theme has to have readily identifiable protagonists, clearly reducable goals, drivers, motivators … and a good conflict too. 
Again, climate change is a good example of how it’d be a bad subject for one of our games. The players are ill-defined, the causes are complex, the motives are manifold, the conflicts are varied and complicated and not always between the same parties… You could do it, but you’d have to pick a really narrow focus to get it to work. And then it would be so niche, no one would play it.
Some could argue that The Hen Commandments is a controversial theme (suggesting the Judo Christian deity can be replace by poultry) but it’s quite light compared to War on Terror, do you purposefully chase controversy or does it happen by accident?
Actually, I find it rather offensive that you’re suggesting the Holy Chicken could be replaced by a Judeo-Christian God (by the way, I love the term “Judo Christian” - I’m going to use that at some point!).  But no, you’re right, THC is pretty harmless. It’s not anti-religion, it’s playing with the sancitity of scripture; the power of the written word. It’s more interesting than provocative because while you’re all pushing your own particular reading of Heninism to the others, throughout the game you all end up contributing jointly to this new religion. Myth feeds into and off of myth and it’s just fascinating in retrospect how the narratives grow in the game.  
To answer the question though, no we really don’t chase controversy (if we were, our next game would surely be “Attack of the Muslim Paedo-Immigrants”). No, the themes we’re interested in are inherently controversial to some degree because they are all either not discussed openly or honestly enough. Combine that with treatment via a board game - a traditionally safe, family pursuit - and you have a lot of people getting their knickers in a twist and saying “you just can’t do that”. 
Actually our games are as safe as milk - the sorts of ideas we invite people to explore through playing them are standard fare in the non-fiction section of Waterstones.
The Hen Commandments boardgame
Are there any themes you wouldn’t touch, anything “too hot for TerrorBull”?
There are themes I don't feel qualified to tackle yet, but no, I don't think there should be any rules. As long as your intention is sincere, it really shouldn't matter - just because it's a game, shouldn't restrict your ability to grapple and interact with it. And for those people who think that entering into a "game space" instantly means trivialising the subject matter, well that's a very narrow experience of what games are there for. And besides, stand-up comics address all manner of themes, some successfully, others not so. But when it's done intelligently and with integrity, the results of combining play, humour and serious subjects can be incredibly powerful.
War on Terror gained a lot of media attention, what effect did that have?
It taught me a hell of a lot about the media! Culturally, it helped us a lot:  It kind of assured War on Terror a small footnote in history and it also helped confirm our beliefs that terrorism really was a taboo subject and it helped create the image of TerrorBull Games as this infamous, radical, underground boardgame business. When in reality we were three friends who’d designed a game by accident. 
Commercially, it really kicked us in the nuts because before the game was even made it was toxic. No one wanted to stock it, we were banned from every single toy fair in the world… we started off completely isolated from both the industry and the retail machine. Combine that with our absolute zero knowledge of both and you can see that, in hindsight, it’s amazing we got anywhere.
War on Terror board game
War on Terror was a very popular game (you could even buy it in high street shops) so why are you going to Kickstarter to fund The Hen Commandments?
I’d like to know which high street shops! The closest we ever came to the High Street was when Virgin Megastore bought 5000 games in an astonishingly brave-and-stupid move, they were going to promote it as part of their lead offering one Christmas. Unfortunately as those games were getting made, Virgin ceased to exist and Zavvi was born, whose CEO was a pro-war, friend-of-number-10. He flipped out and tried to pretend they’d never ordered the games. That period almost bankrupt us, although we won in the end, amazingly. But that’s an aside; what you really want to know is, “Aren’t we massively loaded; why do we need Kickstarter?”. Ok, so somehow we managed to sell 35,000 copies of War on Terror before calling it a day, but over 7 years, with an expensive product that has very little margin in it, that wasn’t designed in the first place as a commercial object… doesn’t leave you much to play with.  
In fact, TerrorBull Games is just me, designing all the games and running things day-to-day and Tom Morgan-Jones who does the wonderful illustrations. We both fit this into our spare time and we don’t draw a salary; it’s a real labour of love. But even if we could afford a print run straight off, I still think we’d turn to Kickstarter because it’s a more efficient way of gauging demand, let alone the marketing opportunities it offers.  And with boardgames at least, all you’re doing is running an elaborate pre-order system, it makes sense. Suddenly the old model of “Guess the amount you’ll sell; get that made, plus some extra, then spend the next two-to-three years selling them” seems incredibly out-of-touch and wasteful. Ultimately we want to spend more time making games and less time selling them; we’re only good at the former.
It’s a while back but I’m pretty sure I saw War on Terror for sale in the Works, it’s not the highest quality of shop but it is technically on the high street. Congratulations on outliving Virgin Megastore. If you could do it all again would you have done anything different?
I suppose it's possible, but that's different to being accepted into the high street, The Works deal mostly in overstock and if it was in there, it's possibly some of the surplus stock taht Virgin/Zavvi couldn't offload back onto us! Anything different? Yes, I wish I hadn't taken the initial media lynchmob so seriously. That in itself deserved to be sent up but I went along with it because I hated being called "sick" and felt I needed to defend myself.
And last of all if you could write just one commandment what would it be?
That's tough; commandments are a bit autocratic for my tastes. Can I cop out and use someone else's instead? "Be excellent to each other"

A big thank you to Andrew Sheerin for taking the time to answer my questions. The Hen Commandments is on Kickstarter now.

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