It started with some scrap paper and a simple idea.
Four years ago, longtime friends Ryan Schaefer and Eyzaah Bouzah, now both 20 years old, attended a summer video game workshop for Indigenous youth in Fort Smith. There, they came up with the concept for a board game that Schaefer describes as being like Snakes and Ladders but with “a traditional twist.”
That idea is now becoming a real board game called Trails and Overflow – with a little help from the NWT Métis Nation and Western Arctic Moving Pictures (WAMP).
“It’s pretty nuts. I wasn’t thinking much of it and then, I don’t know if it was a year or so later, they were telling me, ‘Oh, we’re actually going to make this into a game,’” Schaefer recalled. “It was really cool to hear and once I actually saw a bit of the artwork and how things were being made, I couldn’t believe it.”
The game takes place during breakup season in the South Slave. Players have to travel over trails and overflow to get supplies from town to their cabin on the land before the lakes thaw. Along the way, players have to use Nêhiyawêwin, or the Cree language, and the game features familiar scenes from Fort Smith, Hay River, and Fort Resolution.
Prototypes of the game feature illustrations by Yellowknife artist Cody Fennell and 3D-printed pieces of riders on snowmobiles. They’re not just any snowmobiles: Schaefer insisted their design be modelled on the Bombardier Elan Ski-Doo.
“If anybody talks to me, everyone around where I work, they know I’m nuts about Elans. I collect them, I have a whole bunch of them and I restore them,” he said.
Schaefer hopes the game will be a fun way for people to learn some of the Cree language.
“It’s nice to keep it alive,” he said. “Hopefully people like it.”
Vance Sanderson, a languages manager at the NWT Métis Nation who helped to make the board game a reality, said communities will be able to provide feedback on the project. He’s aiming for the board game to be finalized in the fall.
“We want it to make it the best game. You can learn a language and have fun, and it’s beautiful and it’s of our area,” he said.
“It’s been very fun and rewarding, and I can’t wait until people have it in their home.”
Sanderson hopes other communities will be inspired to make their own games highlighting Indigenous culture and languages.
“We just want to have a snowball effect where it’ll take off.”
The workshop at which the game originated was part of the NWT Métis Nation’s Cree language program in partnership with WAMP’s Hackspace program, which helps young people across the NWT develop digital skills like 3D printing, computer programming, and video game design.
The workshop paired Cree Elders and language-holders with youth to teach and share their language over games.
Sanderson said the workshops are a non-intimidating way to engage Indigenous youth in their language and culture and encourage them to take on new projects.
“With a board game, it serves as a great tool to give youth that empowerment and they can start making their own way and having their programming,” he said.
Davis Heslep, a programming and outreach coordinator at WAMP, said the board game project has allowed youth to take digital skills beyond the screen into the real world.
“We haven’t ever done something like this before,” said Heslep. “It was interesting to see it develop as it was inspired by kids and [has] gone through different filters through the pipeline in order to make it happen.
“I’m just excited for this to go out.”