Bowie Back to Bowie

in which Dan Thurot learns how to use the lasso tool

My brain associates Dan Bullock with new-wave wargames like No Motherland Without, 1979: Revolution in Iran, and (hopefully published one day) Blood & Treasure. I’ve been consistently impressed with his ability to tackle tough topics, imbuing them with uncommon humanity while delivering a few well-deserved body blows to those who put politics and profit over personhood.

Or at least that was true until recently. From now on, I think I’ll forever associate Bullock with Bowie. Namely, the card game Bullock has designed about the life and existential crises of David Bowie in the 1970s. For reasons that will soon make themselves clear, Bowie is not an “official” title. Independent designer Dan Bullock has not somehow acquired the star’s life rights. Rather, it’s a print-and-play design, free to anybody with a printer and some scissors.

But here’s the thing: the unofficial nature of Bowie is precisely what makes it a treasure.

I once recorded an album. No, you will never hear it.

David Bowie tries to cut singles and records.

Say you’re David Bowie in the ’70s. It’s the decade that will see you at your most prolific, but also your most troubled. Do those go hand in hand? Maybe, but let’s leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals. As David Bowie, you’re determined to cut as many records as possible. The problem is that everything is all jumbled up in the deck, a frothing sea of inspirations. Cutting a record is therefore a process of aligning the stars. You’ll need to travel to the right location — London, Berlin, or the USA — and expend enough energy to meet your recording costs and other overheads. When the game ends — although let’s put a pin in that — your score is determined by the number and quality of your singles and albums.

But hold on a second. Bowie is not a solitaire game. In fact, it’s only playable at three or four. What’s up with that?

As luck would have it, David Bowie has been doing quite a bit of cocaine. Just fell into it, really. No point pointing fingers. As a result, his mind has fractured into four distinct personas. There’s Ziggy Stardust, the Man Who Fell to Earth, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke. Each is determined to become the dominant facet. This transforms Bowie into something of a race. There are only so many singles and albums in the deck, only so many coke-fueled days in the decade. Because inspiration and time are limited, there isn’t enough to go around. This head ain’t big enough for the four of us.

He gets angrier as he runs out of paint.

David Bowie feuds with David Bowie, David Bowie, and David Bowie.

A dissociative identity disorder of this magnitude would provide enough drama for one game, but Bullock doesn’t stop there. Not only does Bowie pit these four stage characters of David Bowie against one another, it also dives into the consequences of the man’s unfortunate coping habit.

Over the course of play, drawing certain cards from the deck will present David Bowie with a threat. There’s some jankiness to consider — really, the entire thing is janky, although that’s a not-insignificant source of its charm. Drawing a threat only matters when drawn as an action, not when drawn at the start of the game or as the result of some other effect, a rule I guarantee somebody will flub. But when a threat rears its head, the game pauses. Maybe David Bowie is convinced the Manson Family are after him. Maybe an interview with Dick Cavett isn’t going as planned. Or maybe a coven of witches are trying to get ahold of his semen. Whatever the crisis, everybody must pool their resources to resolve it. The bulk of the responsibility falls to a single persona, but suddenly everybody’s hand is thrown into doubt. Those inspirations, your albums, they’re all potential sacrifices on the altar of addiction.

Of course, you could preserve your hand. Your persona is free to contribute another threat to resolve this one, the coping equivalent of smothering a fire by tossing a propane tank onto the flames. That will earn you a replacement card, for the low low price of making this threat a little harder to beat. It’s a temptation, but a loaded one — because if any threat goes untackled, that persona of David Bowie will die. Which is unfortunately terminal for everybody at the table, since you all happen to share a single body.

In other words, Bowie isn’t only a game about chasing fame at the expense of your mental health. It’s also a survival horror game. Making it through the ’70s is hard enough. Doing so as David Bowie’s most famous persona is downright rough. Luck plays some factor. So too does a willingness to collaborate with your own worst enemy. If you’re currently inhabiting the role of a losing persona? Well. What exactly is keeping you tethered to this existence then?

Is he happy? Is he fulfilled? One gets the sense that he will never be entirely full.

David Bowie is beset by problems of his own manufacture.

By now it’s probably apparent why Bowie will never receive an official printing. It’s a far cry from the spick and span presentations that bear any hope of securing a creative license. Bob Ross: Art of Chill springs to mind.

But it springs to mind not only because it’s inoffensive, but also because it says absolutely nothing about Bob Ross. It’s a game utterly devoid of happy accidents. Nothing in Art of Chill increases my appreciation of Bob Ross as either a person or an artist. It tells me nothing about Ross’s career in the Air Force, or how he learned and developed his wet-on-wet technique, or whether his calming demeanor was natural or hard-fought. He’s presented as little more than an iconic face.

On the other hand, Bullock’s Bowie could be construed as insensitive or shocking, but it leaves more of an impression — and by extension, greater empathy for its protagonist. I don’t qualify as David Bowie’s biggest fan. I’m happy to hear his voice on the radio, and I’ll confess to spilling a few tears over a timely airing of “Space Oddity,” and Seu Jorge’s Portuguese covers make The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. When you get down to it, though, I don’t know David Bowie from Nikola Tesla. I wasn’t aware he had a cocaine habit. I didn’t even know about half of these stage personas.

But I do know depression. Overwork, too. Obsession. Even addiction. I think we all understand those things to some degree. Bullock approaches David Bowie with good humor. In particular, the threat cards are a hoot. But there’s real sensitivity and affection there as well. More than any other game I can think of, Bowie captures the terror of not being in control of yourself. There’s the primal surge of accomplishment that comes from overcoming your troubles long enough to create something worthwhile and lasting, only to remember that you have no idea whether you’ll wake up tomorrow as yourself or as a stranger. Worse than a stranger — as an enemy. As somebody who wishes you harm. As somebody who’ll trash your accomplishments and your health and maybe your life. Depression, mania, addiction, they’re like that. Some days, you won’t recognize yourself in the mirror. Other days you will. And those might be the worst days. Bullock gets that. Bowie gets that.

the many moods, the many shades, the many sides... of George Costanza

David Bowie reigns supreme.

Which brings us full circle to the rest of Bullock’s oeuvre. As with his wargames, Bowie impresses in two contrasting directions, unwavering in its gaze, but also compassionate in its final assessment. The result, not unlike David Bowie’s survival of the 1970s, is an outside impossibility, a diamond that’s all the more valuable for its natural flaws. Perfect artificial constructs simply can’t compare to the inclusions of the real thing. And that’s far truer of someone like David Bowie or an unofficial game like Bowie than it is of actual diamonds.

You can find the files, as well as Dan Bullock’s explanation of how to craft Bowie, over here.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on March 21, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. This is everything – thank you for bringing this into my life, Dan. Amazing..

  2. Dan, I was wondering when you would get around to discovering this Dan Bullock treasure!

  3. I didn’t know about this, wow! Thanks!

    I really hope Blood & Treasure will be published. The idea seems very interesting, but depending on representation it could be a subject some publishers rather avoid.

  4. Christian van Someren

    Fascinating. Such a crazy, unique, and sincere game. I need to check this out.

  5. Is it bad that my initial reaction was “That’s not Ziggy, that’s Halloween Jack”?

  6. As a Brazilian, it’s amazing that you love Seu Jorge’s version of Life on Mars!

  1. Pingback: Space-Cast! #27. No Rethemes | SPACE-BIFF!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: