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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Teeny-Tiny Talking Mice Have Taken Over Games

“Every single culture throughout history, at every single point, has stories about animals in which the animals are anthropomorphized,” tabletop game designer Jay Dragon says. With some 20-sided dice and improv, anyone can make these stories interactive, and many are working hard to do just that. These Lilliputian games have been blossoming in the tabletop role-playing and board game communities for over a decade, but especially in the past three years. It’s not just players’ love (or hate) of the Warrior Cats book series that’s giving the genre new life. The cottagecore optimism of Lilliputian games—their creative but familiar settings, the ability to build more inclusive games or hide complex mechanics via woodland cuteness—has hooked players and kept them returning to the table.

In summer and fall of 2020, the cottagecore movement burst into the public consciousness with its cozy and idyllic depictions of a less industrialized life. Cottagecore gaming has grown in popularity during the pandemic era, seen by sims like Stardew Valley, Untitled Goose Game, and The Sims 4’s newest expansion, Cottage Living. Cottagecore isn’t just escapist, it provides players a way to imagine a better future: one in which we’re more in touch with nature, the seasons, and each other instead of productivity goals. Cottagecore looks forward, using the aesthetics and nostalgia of past eras to right present-day wrongs, just like the solarpunk aesthetic, or the Lilliputian genre of talking animals. This period of pandemic reflection has only given us more time to imagine a better world.

When gamemaster Brennan Lee Mulligan researched the children’s book The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit tales while planning for his Lilliputian tabletop campaign Mice & Murder, he learned that 19th century talking animal media was responding to the industrialization and alienation of the era it was written in. “People were being choked by factory smog and wanted to go out with a quaint English picnic,” he says. Urbanization and the rigid workday trapped people in buildings with an “abundance of strangers,” separating citizens from their communities, neighbors, and nature. Smoked-out skies and claustrophobic isolation were so 1891, but they’re unfortunately also so 2021. Thankfully, so can playing a game where your main objective is sharing a tea cup with Frog and Toad.

Besides the current overlapping public health and climate crises, tabletop gaming is also reckoning with racial representations and violence in games, topics Lilliputian games can approach in new ways. Playing pacifist dogs in a community-building game feels different, because the driving force is not human vs. human violence or consideration of racial “attributes” and “traits.” Lilliputian games are bringing people together across a table, or video call, while remaining as comforting and familiar as a trip to the dog park. This year, more than ever, is shaping up to be one of talking rats, thumbtack swords, and making entire meals out of feta cheese crumbles, both in and out of gaming.

A Lilliputian Year

Small, shrunken worlds have made major appearances in all forms in 2021: When the second season of Hulu’s Solar Opposites was released on March 26, the most praise was given not to the show’s animation or characters but to a C-plot called the “Wall,” which follows a community of shrunken-down humans living off candy and mice milk. This year began with the viral premiere of a crowdsourced Ratatouille musical. February followed with Netflix announcing a Redwall adaptation for television, and March ended with an announcement that CollegeHumor’s streaming service Dropout’s next Dimension 20 tabletop role-playing series would be themed around mice and murder.


Throughout 2021, five major Lilliputian games or expansions have been announced or released: Jay Dragon’s Wanderhome, the mousey Squeaks in the Deep, a Humblewood lorebook called Humblewood Tales, Root: The RPG, a TTRPG set in the world of the wargame Root, and a collection of adventures in the Mausritter game. All five were financed through the backing of thousands of excited players via Kickstarter campaigns. There’s a lot to take in from past Lilliputian games as well, from the “swords and whiskers” games of Mausritter and Mouse Guard to lighter fare like Michtim and Squirrel Attack! to the engine-building board games of Everdell and Root. Sharpen those thumbtacks and queue up the heartwarming Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack ("Kristofferson's Theme," anyone?), there’s never been a better time to try out being tiny in games.

The genre’s ascent was spurned by many small developers and still surprises most of the designers behind it. Although there were Lilliputian games around in the 2010s (Mouse Guard, Mice and Mystics), 2018 featured the double-whammy release of Everdell and Root, both of which soared to immense popularity—70,000 people have reported playing either game on BoardGameGeek.com, and the website ranks both games in the top 50 board games of all time. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, what was in the water that we were all anthropomorphizing animals?” Root designer Cole Wehrle says. When Root appeared at the tabletop gaming convention Gen Con for the first time in 2018, Leder Games sold out of all game materials it had—the maximum it could bring to the convention—not only the board game but every stuffed animal it had brought. The line “was easily an eighth of a mile long,” Leder says. That’s longer than the Washington Monument on its side. Three years out, both games are still popular and raising millions of dollars on Kickstarter for new expansions.

The episodic TTRPG show Dimension 20 also kicked off in 2018, and though Mulligan had the idea for a murder-mystery animalian campaign from the beginning, it took until 2021 to produce the series: all 10 episodes of the whodunit have now aired. It’s the second Lilliputian campaign on D20, the other being last winter's Tiny Heist, a twist of D&D genres that combined Ocean's Eleven with The Borrowers.

Other Lilliputian games fell into the genre sideways. The TTRPG Humblewood deals primarily with anthropomorphized birds, building off of illustrator Leesha Hannigan’s art of high-fantasy chickens and owls. Mausritter adapted designer Isaac Williams’ mice and rat setting he used for his household games into a dense, detailed rulebook. Wanderhome was drafted by Dragon as a game to process post-pandemic trauma with a system that has no combat, with a kind and bittersweet design. It helps that these games have deep roots in stories we likely grew up with.

The Nostalgia Factor

In the children’s literature analysis book Feeling Like a Kid, author Jerry Griswold outlines five reoccurring themes in children’s stories: snugness, smallness, aliveness, scariness, and lightness. These first three are of particular importance to Lilliputian games, as Griswold’s examples show: the snugness of a cozy underground badger den in The Wind in the Willows, the smallness of Stuart Little and his toy car, the aliveness of thoughtful talking animals in Doctor Dolittle. Griswold writes that children are drawn to these themes because of how much of their favorite activities have these elements (building pillow forts, being generally tiny, seeing the whole universe as “alive and full of companions”)—while adult literature has fewer and fewer moments of pure cozy joy. But adults still love to imagine themselves living in badger dens or having several animal companions (see: Animal Crossing, The Tale of Despereaux, Paddington 2.). Analog games are just catching up to this desire.

Besides the pure fun of snug, small activities, centuries of Lilliputian children’s literature has created a storehouse of nostalgia for designers and players to build off of: Mice & Murder draws from The Wind in the Willows and Beatrix Potter; Root draws from Watership Down, Mouse Guard, and Disney’s Robin Hood; Mausritter draws from Brambly Hedge, The Rescuers, and Ghibli’s Arrietty. Redwall finds a way to sneak into most games, as the Brian Jacques book series was immensely popular, especially for ’90s kids.

“Nostalgia for Redwall is pretty high right now,” Root player Evelyn Ramiel tells WIRED over Discord. “And the Root setting takes what people loved as kids (including me) from Redwall and takes out a lot of the more uncomfortable social implications that Redwall has (morally coding all the animal species).” All of the design teams interviewed for this story took special care to not code animalian factions and species for real-life cultures, a move that Root: The RPG designer Mark Truman says helped keep fantastical allegories in game worlds without bringing in concepts of racial attributes, dark elves, or orcs. “I think one of the major reasons that animalia games are doing well right now is a desire to step away from the often difficult reimagining of race that's required to play in traditional fantasy settings,” Truman says.

“Oftentimes the human body is a very political site, kind of inescapably,” Dragon explains. Lilliputian gaming “allows distance but also closeness where you can say something about what it means to be human.”

Exploring New Genres Through Mice

The Lilliputian genre can be escapist, but more often it can use its remove from humanity and reality to help players understand what they really want to do in a fantasy world. “Wanderhome is the only game in which my character took a leisurely afternoon nap,” player Logan Timmins says. “And I as a player really enjoyed that choice and would do it again.” Your tabletop play can be dedicated to shepherding bees, tidying a fox den, collecting acorns for a squirrel-commune feast—it doesn’t have to be more complicated or violent than that. It’s no coincidence that Lilliputian games have seen their popularity rise even more during quarantine, compounded by the cottagecore aesthetic and its often queer-led appreciation for chosen families and cozy spaces. 

“I think that part of the reason why queer players in the RPG scene are interested in exploring the pastoral fantasy genre is because it puts a heavy emphasis on community and the physical spaces those communities exist in,” Root and Wanderhome player Nick Eggers explains on Discord.

The designers of Root used Lilliputian aesthetics for the opposite purpose: They had a cruel, asymmetric board game in the wargaming genre, a space typically populated by Panzer tanks and dragons. “The core problem with getting two people to play Axis and Allies is that you have to pick at the beginning of the game which one of you is a Nazi,” says Root’s illustrator Kyle Ferrin. That’s a serious barrier to play. Root’s world of bird dynasties, otter swim instructors, and the cutest possum with a sword I’ve ever seen has pulled in thousands of players to wargaming. The baked-in coziness gives more wiggle room for players to take violent actions and discover whether it’s enjoyable, for both sides—it’s easier to have your armies murdered if it’s by a cute possum, and that formula works for almost any game.

As an OSR (old-school Renaissance) game, Mausritter is similarly cruel—one bad dice roll could crush your character—and that fragility and disposability of characters works for a mouse world. The juxtaposition of snug/deadly is also great to watch. “There's something about seeing very adorable and twee things, and then taking them super deadly seriously, that lends itself to the type of storytelling we expect from TTRPG actual play,” Mulligan tells WIRED.

Design Constraints of Being Small

Once players enter Lilliputian games, they can fall deep into massive logistical and philosophical holes in world-building, such as how Lilliputian worlds exist, how human fit in, or which animals are treated like pets; Disney’s Goofy is humanlike while Pluto is a “pet,” despite both being dogs.

“Nerds’ favorite pastime is to attempt to apply logistical reality to fantasy realities that are not built on a skeleton of logistics,” Mulligan says. “You read The Wind in the Willows, and it's like, ‘So wait a minute, Mr. Toad owns a car. But not every animal wears pants? And he's friends with a horse, and the horse pulls his wagon?’”


There are creative rules designers have made for these problems: Humblewood makes any monstrous, less-sentient animals fantastical, like an elemental lion. Kyle Ferrin created basic rules for the Root world’s sentience: Only similarly sized woodland creatures act like humans, but no fish, because the predators need a food source they don’t feel guilty about consuming. “It is your call to figure out how to deal with the Goofy/Pluto problem,” Dragon says about animals not described in Wanderhome’s corebook. Crafting perfect (or even consistent) Lilliputian logic can be more trouble than it’s worth. “I think I actually am comfortable saying, at a certain point, you've gotta yell, ‘Stop, relax. We're not going to go down this road anymore,’” Mulligan says.

Being one inch tall also alters the difficulty of almost any in-game challenge (compounded if characters lack opposable thumbs). When Mulligan planned the Tiny Heist campaign, the main objective was to steal a roll of quarters. Avoiding a cat can be proportional to dragon-style boss battles. “If you imagine yourself as a small mouse adventurer,” Isaac Williams says, “Everything becomes a huge, monolithic challenge to deal with. You exist inside this enormous megadungeon.” While illustrating Mausritter, this recontextualization of scale altered the way Williams saw his world: Every pile of roots could be a home; every kitchen tool could be a trap. Turning everyday objects or locations into parts of a Lilliputian game is part of the genre’s fun—from using Tamagotchis as casino slot machines to visiting a hospital inside a rec center first-aid kit, Tiny Heist’s set design is an especially good example of this, on par with Dreamworks’ Flushed Away sets like the dishwasher Big Ben or the ice cube torture machine.

But don’t forget: Everyday animals can also be transformed into playable characters in Lilliputian games. “I think it makes it very immediate,” Dragon says. “Oh, this deer I saw driving home would make a cool character.” Or, more often, the inspiration is someone’s fursona, the anthropomorphic animal persona of a furry community member. Or, even more often, someone’s pet. When a Wanderhome Kickstarter backer’s cat passed away, they messaged Dragon to see what tier of backing was needed to get their pet memorialized inside the TTRPG. No such tier existed, but Dragon made an exception, asked them to donate to an animal shelter instead, and found a home inside the rulebook for a little cat. Now, forever part of the Lilliputian world of Wanderhome, is a cat that no longer exists in this realm. It’s clutching a dagger and under the protection of a bear, so, y’know, tread carefully.

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