Starry Heavens is a game originally designed for the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden, created with architect Nathalie Pozzi. It consists of 43 large steel plates and ten helium-filled meteorological balloons. Don’t let the pictures fool you – those balloons are huge – they range from 6 feet to 20 feet in diameter.
The name of the game comes from the epitaph on Kant’s tombstone: “The Starry Heavens Above, the Moral Law Within.” A single player is the Ruler, who stands in the center, calling out “BLACK,” “WHITE,” or “GRAY” – the three colors of spaces on the grid. Other players move in unison to the color that is called, trying to banish each other, make it to the center, and depose the Ruler. The players dance around the Ruler in what looks like a stylized waltz, everyone stepping together when a new color is called.
Each time the the Ruler calls a color, she pulls a large central balloon down one more mark, literally bringing it to earth as the game is played (a physical feat that becomes more challenging the more the huge helium balloon is pulled down). The ruler tries to touch the balloon before another player becomes the Ruler, at which point the balloon rises up again. But the Ruler virtually never wins.
Nathalie and I were very pleased with the premiere of the game. It was extremely well-received by players, who embraced the game and played vigorously until the very last moment that it had to be taken down. In fact the game created an amazing play community, with players actively recruiting spectators and teaching them the game. There is a lot I love about the game design, including the fact that the game had no beginning or end, accommodating players who enter and leave as they wished. Playing well requires both social and strategic smarts, as players constantly make and break temporary alliances to team up with each other to banish other players from the game. For me the game is an abstract moral fable about a foolish Ruler who vainly tries to pull the heavens down to earth as an unruly populace plays political games to take the Ruler’s place.
Thanks to the Pop Rally team at MoMA, as well as Jamin Brophy-Warren and the Kill Screen team for commissioning the work. And big props to all of our playtesters for their time, energy, and insight.
Project update: In 2012, Nathalie and I presented the work at the Playpublik festival in Berlin. Collaborating with the team at Invisible Playground, we modified the game rules, added LED lights inside the balloons, and added a live band. Here’s a blog post I made about the changes to the game and here’s a video by Asia Dèr that documents the game’s performance.
• This documentation video has a beautiful score by Michael Sweet and was shot and edited by Daniel Wilson.
• This preview of the work was written by Blake Eskin for the New Yorker.
• I’ve also written about the design of Starry Heavens here on my blog.
• For the complete game rules, here is a PDF that was used as signage at the installation.
• Here is one of Nathalie’s architectural drawings with the gameboard layout.
Photo credits: Rebecca Jones, Philip Reuta, Abigail Simon, Raymond Yeung