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Game designer Connor Alexander (Cherokee) thinks a lot of people have the wrong idea about wolves. 

While most people, especially non-Natives, tend to think of the animals as fiercely competitive, “lone wolf” alphas that are driven to dominate — or destroy — other animals, that’s not the way Alexander looks at them. Wolves work in packs, he points out, and are driven by a shared need for survival, not dominance. 

“I want to throw that back at people, and say, they’re a pack, and they work together, and without that dynamic, the whole pack falls apart,” Alexander said. “That’s what we’re trying to communicate here.”

Alexander’s new medium for his message is Wolves, an upcoming board game aimed at creating a “semi-cooperative, semi-competitive” environment through an Indigenous lens. The game casts players as leaders of agrarian communities vying for a limited pool of resources as they attempt to survive through the next winter. 

The project is Alexander’s next step in building Indigenous representation in gaming, an industry where representation by Native Americans is thin, despite frequent pilfering of Native myths and legends. 

Wolves follows the success of Alexander’s Coyote and Crow, a tabletop roleplaying game (RPG) centered on telling Indigenous stories in an alternate history where European contact never occurred. Coyote and Crow raised $1 million from some 16,000 backers in its Kickstarter, and has sold roughly 7,000 books at retail in the time since, Alexander told Tribal Business News. He figures he’s shipped around 19,000 copies of Coyote and Crow.

He hopes to replicate that success with Wolves with a new Kickstarter campaign in early July to raise $50,000 for production costs. Alexander has reasons to be optimistic; the project has already attracted 800 followers who will be notified when the Kickstarter goes live, and marketing metrics paint a rosy picture ahead.

Optimism aside, he’s still a bit terrified, he says. 

“This is my third time on Kickstarter and I’m still not anymore used to it,” Alexander said. “I’m proud of what we’re putting together, but I hope it speaks to a wider audience. We want this to speak to board gamers, but also, the more acceptance we see among traditional board gamers, the more likely we are to reach beyond that crowd to wider audiences.” 

Alexander spoke with Tribal Business News about preparing for Wolves, what it’s been like to see such success in the tabletop industry, and managing his identity among both tabletop gamers and his Native peers. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. 

How are you feeling about your chances on Kickstarter?

The goal is $50,000, but I honestly think we’re going to end up higher than that. Based on our information from [crowdfunding analytics company] BackerKit, I don’t think we’ll have a hard time. Still, our other crowdfunded stuff has been RPGs, so this is really uncharted territory for me, and so I’m just trying to see how this plays out.

What made you strike out into ‘uncharted territory,’ so to speak, rather than building another RPG?

My goal beyond financial numbers is that role playing games have sort of an inherent hurdle to entry. One is the sheer cost — a book can run you $70, and then there’s the logistical hurdles of getting a group together and playing for hours and hours, and then further you have the fact that a lot of people aren’t familiar with RPGs. It’s a sub-hobby within a hobby, and you hand someone a 500-page book to read and it’s like you handed them a textbook. 

A lot of this goes doubly for Native audiences, who were conditioned — and rightly so — to side eye board games, especially with any Native themes. I want Native people to see the other kinds of games out there. A lot of Native folks are still playing Clue, and Monopoly, and so we wanted to introduce them to modern gaming, which has more room for complex themes and mechanics. 

How does Wolves differ in its approach?

It’s a single package - you can sit down and play it in a single night. You don’t have to learn rules and mechanics from a 500-page book. Most people can jump on this train pretty quickly.  

You mentioned earlier that Wolves is ‘semi-cooperative.’ What does that mean?

I’m hoping to show folks that there’s different ways to have a fulfilling session that aren’t 100 percent co-op, or 100 percent crushing your opponent. There’s room in-between for other ideas. 

Like what?

In Wolves, you’re going to be gathering resources for your community by drawing cards from an asymmetric deck [one per community.] Most of the time, you’re going to be able to supply yourself, but occasionally you’re going to fall short of resources. Rather than having a system of market or trade, I decided to present a gifting economy, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen in a board game before. 

So players are tasked with giving each other resources, rather than requesting trades or selling those resources? How does that work as a game mechanic?

The idea behind it is that there’s this intangible concept of status. If you can say hey I produced enough for my people and have excess to cover you, there's a sort of status mechanism at play where you have the bragging right to say we're that good at fishing. We can actually help you out.

Every round will be a status rank order - and whoever has the highest status is expected to offer gifts first. You get status for giving those gifts. At the end of the game, whoever has the most status awards gets elected chief of all these communities.

You mentioned that this isn’t a game about crushing your opponents. What’s to stop players from simply holding onto resources and starving out other players?

That’s the catch. All players have to survive. Nobody gets elected chief at the end of the game, if all players don’t make it. 

That way, you have an immediate incentive to make sure your neighbors have what they need. There's no benefit to crushing your neighbor, so trying to short your neighbor that fish they need is dooming yourself. I wanted to get at this underlying idea of interconnectedness.

So there is a competition, but everyone has to make it to the end for the competition to mean anything.

Yeah, exactly.  I don't think I'm reinventing the wheel, but I don't think I've seen this packaged in this way.

What’s it been like stepping into the hobby gaming industry as a Native American person?

It's terrifying for me. As a reconnecting, urban Native who didn't grow up on a rez, I'm constantly going through the same (internal) battle: Am I Native enough? That hits me every time I'm hanging out with folks. I'm like, am I Native enough? I think that's a struggle we all go through, but that’s magnified because I’m going out and presenting these games to these folks, and I try to make sure we include a wide range of Native perspectives, but it’s still a lot. 

I feel like I have one foot in two doors: one in the Native world, one in the hobby-gaming world, and while we’re trying to make those rooms connected, I still feel like I’m talking to two different audiences at the same time.  

I have to change my verbiage. A couple weeks ago I was at the Indigenous Futurisms event, and I'd say we got a handful of people who were non-Native, and 99 percent were native, and 80 percent had never heard of Coyote and Crow or knew who I was. While I've been successful with Coyote and Crow, I've not even begun to tap the audience that I want.

Still, Coyote and Crow saw a lot of success — partnerships, discussion, a major impact on the conversation around the industry. 

It's been a great run, and the fact that I'm still selling books and still finding an audience. I really expected the game when it released for retail in April 2022, to see what a lot of people see with traditional RPGs - it has a big peak, and then a drop off, and then it fades into obscurity, and I would say I've had somewhat of that, but the books have still sold regularly.

About The Author
Chez Oxendine
Staff Writer
Chez Oxendine (Lumbee-Cheraw) is a staff writer for Tribal Business News. Based in Oklahoma, he focuses on broadband, Indigenous entrepreneurs, and federal policy. His journalism has been featured in Native News Online, Fort Gibson Times, Muskogee Phoenix, Baconian Magazine, and Oklahoma Magazine, among others.
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