Cornell box as tabletop game

I’m working on a material rhetorics independent study with Collin Brooke this semester which quickly turned from a reading list to a constellation of which gaming, hypertext, Peter Elbow, bots, byzantine art, and a world of 4D are all a part. For one of my projects, Collin asked me to locate a photo of a Joseph Cornell box and to invent the game for which that box/contents are the pieces. This was one of the most challenging|captivating things I have ever made.

I started with this Cornell Box

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Solar Set)

Joseph Cornell, Untitled (Solar Set)

and created the game Mission: Perilous Planet 

Overview: For 2 players

Earth can no longer sustain the human population. Extreme storms and unstoppable blights wreck havoc on what little crops are still able to grow in the barren ground. Inhabitants who have not been stricken by the pandemic of flu strand X, are starving. Mission: Perilous Planet is sending two teams of explorers to investigate a group of five biospheres they have deemed fit for settlement to flee the destroyed Earth. Your mission: give humanity a fighting chance.

Game Contents

  • Eclipse Event bar
  • Solar Phase marker
  • Lunar Phase marker
  • Habitus orb
  • Touchdown Timeline
  • Gravity Force Rings of small and large intensity
  • Terrestrial Biospheres: two water, two desert, one temperate forest planets to play as
    • water: Aquater and Hydralus
    • temperate forest: Taiga
    • desert: Nomadian and Orelian
  • Dice: gravity (black), eclipse (white), collect and refine resources (green), project construction (blue), and hardship (red)
  • Status and Inventory card

Eclipse Event Bar

Play space to determine effects of gravity and eclipses with each turn. The Eclipse Event bar has 13 spaces for Gravity Force rings to be moved across both forward and backward based on the roll indicated by the Gravity die. When a small and large Gravity Force ring meet over a planet, no actions can be taken on that turn by the player in control of the planet as a Flux Event has taken place. Each player controls a small and a large Gravity Force ring to keep from coalescing, but may also influence the occurrence of a Flux Event on the opposing player and planet.

Solar Phase Marker and Lunar Phase Marker

Located on the Eclipse Event bar, these two markers are used to indicate what type of Eclipse a planet is experiencing during a Flux Event. The Lunar Phase marker (depicting phases of the moon) brings about natural disaster on the planet by disrupting planetary levels of gravity. The Solar Phase marker (depicting the sun) impacts the player’s ability to collect and process resources by disrupting the balance of night and day.


Gravity Force Rings and Gravity Die

When Gravity Force rings meet, a Flux Event occurs. During a Flux Event, the player must roll the Eclipse die to determine the effects of Gravity on their planet. Located on the Eclipse Event bar, these four rings (two large and two small) are controlled by the Gravity die. Each turn, the players roll the Gravity die to determine how many spaces along the Eclipse Event bar the Gravity Force rings are moved.

Rolls and resulting moves to be divided between small and large Gravity Force Rings:

1     move one notch backward; cannot be used on opponent

2    move two notches forward

3    move three notches backward; cannot be used on opponent

4    move four notches forward

5    move five notches backward; cannot be used on opponent

6    move six notches forward

Each roll can be split between the small and large rings. If roll is being used to move opponent’s rings, only even rolls can be applied in an amount half the total.



Eclipse (white die)  controls the Lunar and Solar Phase markers

rolls and resulting actions:

  • blank (2 side): no effect
  • partial solar eclipse (half yellow circle): cannot collect resources this turn
  • partial lunar eclipse (half black circle): lose last resource or food collection
  • full solar eclipse (yellow circle): cannot collect or refine resources or begin or complete projects this turn
  • full lunar eclipse (black circle): lose all uncompleted projects

Collect/Refine Resources (green die):

numbered 1-6 to be allotted across actions:

  • collect food
  • collect resource
  • refine resource
  • process food

Each number indicates one food or resource action. For example, rolling a 3 might be divided across the actions: collect 1 food, collect 1 resource, process 1 food. Refining and Processing can only be performed on food or resources in inventory from a previous turn and cannot be applied to food or resources collected in that turn.

Projects (blue die):

numbered 1-6 to indicate phases of completeness in a structure’s construction (6 being complete)

  • build shelter
  • build processing or refinery plant

Hardship (red dice):

Icon die is type of hardship to affect player, while corresponding number die is intensity of hardship in play

  • blank (3 sides) : no effect
  • blight/parasite of food (bug icon): roll 1, 3, 5 lose last food collection; 2, 4, 6 lose ½ of food inventory
  • natural disaster (fire icon): roll 1, 3, 5 lose last resource collection; 2, 4, 6 lose ½ of resource inventory
  • desolation (skull icon): both natural disaster and blight/parasite roll 1-5 lose ½ of food and resource inventories; 6 lose food inventory and processing plant at highest phase of completion


Habitus Orb

Mission: Perilous Planet only has eight weeks to establish living conditions for Earth’s resettlement. At the end of each round, the habitus orb is moved up on space on the Touchdown Timeline.


Status and Inventory Card

When the Habitus Orb reaches the end of the Timeline, each player must take stock of the state of their biosphere.

  • Each completed shelter: + 2
  • Each completed processing/refinery plant: + 4
  • Each refined or processed food or resource: + 3
  • Each unfinished project: -2
  • Each unprocessed or unrefined food or resource: -1



Players roll to decide who goes first; highest roll earns first turn and the choice of location for their biosphere in the orbital cups.

Each player gets to select a biosphere for resettlement. Each biosphere has strengths and weaknesses for its lifeforms that are affected by gravity and solar and lunar eclipse phases.

Water: Aquater and Hydralus

  • resources: fishing and algae materials
  • environmental instability triggered colossal high tides

Desert: Nomadian and Orelian

  • resources: mining and stone materials
  • environmental instability: obliterating wind storms

Forest: Taiga

  • resources: hunting and lumber materials
  • environmental instability: mass plant eradication

To set up the Eclipse Event bar, both Solar and Lunar Phase markers are pushed to the center. Each player takes a small and large Gravity Force ring and places them above their orbital cup that locates their biosphere. Each player gets the following dice:

  • gravity (black)
  • eclipse (white)
  • collect and refine resources (green)
  • project construction (blue)
  • hardship (red: one icon and one numbered)



Each turn, the player rolls each of their die except the Eclipse die, which is only rolled to determine the effects of a Flux Event when Gravity rings coalesce. After both players have taken their turn, the Habitus Orb is moved one space forward on the timeline.


Game End

When the Habitus Orb reaches the end of the Touchdown Timeline, the time for choosing the more hospitable biosphere is determined. The biosphere with the most stable colony conditions at the end of the development period receives the Earth population for resettlement. The conditions are determined by taking inventory of the environment on the Status and Inventory card.

The Counterintuition of Countergaming: Active Play

Reading Alexander R. Galloway’s Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), I felt a moment of serendipity in his chapter “Countergaming” as a space to continue thinking about materiality in digital games/play, in troubling (or blurring or extending or making permeable) the magic circle (the place/time created by a game for the game to take place), and how play affects and is affected by the materiality of digital games. I found myself thinking back to notes I jotted during our class discussion last week on Juul and Wardrip-Fruin and our recounts of playing Agricola; much of our conversation was on the visibility of player agency in the game or the materials of the game—agency is registered by us, the player, when we can see effects on the environment/materials resultant of our choices or nonchoices. I found myself thinking of play, as a result of this conversation, as differing in its intent—play as doing (exploring possibility) play as progress (perfecting skill with mastery/winning in mind). I don’t necessarily think of these as mutually exclusive, in fact, I imagine they are happening as a sort of hybridity. This made me think of a similar distinction of the concept invention in rhetoric in which invention can be hermeneutic (for some thing, an end in mind; ends) versus algorithmic (ongoing; that which seeks possibility in the adjacent). This brought pause as I thought about how I was defining materiality and material to myself, wondering if my interest in the material wasn’t counter-productive to other material interests in game studies (lately I have felt as if my interest in making is actually one in breaking). I don’t know how to define materiality for myself yet, but I root it in the possibility to act/affect. Galloway opens his book with the following quote by Gilles Deleuze from “Intellectuals and Power”

Representation no longer exists; there’s only action.

Action: the capacity to act; the possibility in action, and with action comes the possibility for counteraction. Galloway begins his chapter on “Countergaming” by describing the different ways a game can be modified (or mode(i)fied: an action to come back to) to disrupt the intuitive flow of gameplay: at the level of its visual design (characters, maps, artwork); at the level of the rules of the game (what the repercussions of gamic acts are); at the level of its software technology (game physics, character behavior) (108). Borrowing from Peter Wollen’s seven theses on counter-cinema, Galloway lays out five formal differences between gaming and countergaming:

  1. transparency versus foregrounding: removing the apparatus from the image versus interplay of graphics apparatus displayed without representational imagery
  2. gameplay versus aestheticism: narrative gameplay based on a coherent rule set versus formal experiments
  3. representational modeling versus visual artifacts: mimetic modeling of objects versus glitches and unexpected products
  4. natural physics versus invented physics: Newtonian laws of motion versus incoherent physical laws
  5. interactivity versus noncorrespondence: predictable linkage between controller input and gameplay versus barriers between controller input and gameplay

What is of interest in exploring these further is that these need not fall stray from game/play into art, but can change the way in which materials can act and are interacted with/through.

Videos: Jodi SOD mod of Wolfenstein 3D (top) and Wolfenstein 3D (bottom)

How might mods modify what we think of as a game space? How might they influence the magic circle of play? Or mode(i)fy the space between player/environment and game/system/environment? Does Galloway’s countergaming allow for a more object oriented look at play—one that doesn’t create a new ontological status of materials that overshadow the player, but instead modify how we conceptualize players and space/objects? Does looking at materiality through a lens of counter- afford a different look at the action of play as algorithmic instead of hermeneutic?

I don’t have answers for these many questions, only possibility space. Galloway ends this chapter and his book with the possibility that countergaming can create:

Countergaming is an unrealized project…there will be a whole language of play, radical and new, that will transform the countergaming movement, just as Godard did to the cinema, or Deleuze did to philosophy, or Duchamp did to the art object. And more importantly, artist-made game mods will be able to resolve the essential contradiction of their existence thus far: that they have sought largely to remove their own gameplay and lapse back to other media entirely (animation, video, painting). This will be a realization of countergaming as gaming