Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

How I Created a Cattle Roundup Card Game

Almost everyone I know who collects board games toys with the idea of creating their own. I have been playing around with the mechanics of games since I was a kid. Much to the annoyance of my family, I was constantly changing the rules or using the game pieces to create my own game. Even though my family couldn’t understand it, I was experimenting to improve games we often played. Could I make the games more fun? Or even make my own game? Fast forward to today, and I own over 100 board games (or nearly 200 depending on how you count). So when an opportunity came up to design my own game, I had to take it.

The opening occurred during a meeting with our Education and Engagement Manager Laura Forde and Anna Killian, then-site supervisor for the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site. At the time, we were planning a teacher workshop at the Chateau focusing on the 1880s cattle boom. The first thing that came to mind was a premise for a game. I shared it with the group—initially pitching it as a cattle roundup activity—and it made the list. Now I just needed to design the game.

The concept was simple. Make a game based on the children’s card-matching game Memory where you hunt for the cattle that match your brand in a herd. That basic idea was a good start, but I needed to flesh it out a bit more. I thought about what other concepts I would want to convey to my students besides what is a roundup. My list came out as follows:

  • Law and order
  • Rustling
  • The economics of cattle
  • Math

As I started thinking about the game mechanics needed to capture these ideas, the biggest challenge appeared to be having too many ideas. I had several ways that I could handle rustling, but which would be best? Playtesting would be needed to answer that question. So I took a couple of days to draft some rules. Writing these rules was the most challenging part, as I had to devise a way to put them on paper so that non-gamers could easily understand them. Once my rules were drafted, the next step was to build a prototype.

There is a surprising amount of math that goes into designing a game. I needed to figure out how many cards to make. It was like solving a dreaded story problem in a math textbook. If the game consists of three rounds, and during each round the players must find four cows to sell, how many cows must each initial herd contain? The answer was 16. To work in the economics of raising cattle, I wanted to find a way to represent the fact that you want to sell cattle in their prime. Players would need to sell the cattle at the right time to get top dollar. If they sell too early or too late the cow would be worth less money. For the game, I represented a year as a round of play. Each round, the players try and find the four best cows to sell. I also had to figure out the different dollar amounts for each cow card and ensure the spread was even among the three rounds. I also worked in a turn counter so that if the players took too many turns trying to find their cattle they would incur a penalty. Now they have an economic choice to either pay the penalty or sell a subprime cow. Once I knew the number of cards needed, I used Photoshop to make quick designs. I spent the next two days cutting out the cards and sliding them into plastic sleeves, placing a playing card between the front and back card to provide stability. Once assembled, I had six full-sized herds and two sets of rules to test.

A pile of cards waits to be cut out and sleeved. Also visible are the Post-It notes used to figure out my card numbers.

Unfortunately, I spaced the cards too close together to feel comfortable using a paper cutter. As a result, I had to cut out all the cards by hand.

My original plan was to have our certified interpretive gallery guide, Tom Chase, test the game with visitors to the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. I taught him and another interpretive gallery guide, Kristi Carpenter, how to play one afternoon. Though they never had time to try it with guests, playing with them taught me a few things. For example, six players would be too many. Running out of time, I recruited my wife’s family (my usual game group) to spend an afternoon playing the game several times so that I could test the rules. We had a lot of fun, and I got the answers that I needed to my rules-related questions.

Family members Brian and Roxanne Rosin helped me playtest the game and gave valuable insights, such as to make sure the playing cards all had the same backside next time. That design flaw may have given them an unfair advantage during the initial testing phase.

Equipped with my final designs, I had the cards printed just in time for our workshop in Medora. Watching the teachers play the game was fun. Many responded that they enjoyed the game and thought their students would also love it. Being teachers, they quickly picked up on the historical themes. I even had one teacher say that they would love to use it for their economics class. Based on feedback, I will make a few simple changes before sending them the design files and final rules so they can make their own copies of the game.

Teachers play the game as part of our North Dakota Studies teacher workshop at the Chateau de Morès State Historic Site.

This game was only one of many lessons and activities workshop attendees experienced and were able to bring back to their class.

So now that the game exists, what is next? Well, there is some interest in the State Historical Society of North Dakota turning this game into a sellable product. It is currently going through the editors, who are waiting for me to review their suggestions and questions while I write this blog post. We will also work with our new media specialists to improve my Photoshop work. Maybe one day you will be able to buy a copy for yourself. As for me, as much fun as this process has been, I think I will put my budding game design career on hold for the foreseeable future and spend a bit more time playing games with my family.

My wife, Kate, gets some help from our daughter, Auri.

My son, Calvin, checks to see whether a cow matches our brand.

Interns Learn About the State Archives From the Inside Out

Colby Aderhold, Photo Archives Intern

I am a senior at the University of Mary studying history, philosophy, and classics. This summer I had the privilege of working as an intern at the State Archives. My project was to inventory and organize the Reverend Harold W. Case Photograph Collection at the container level. In total, I inventoried and organized 215 boxes and 17,312 individual items. The collection contains a variety of photographs, including safety negatives, nitrate negatives, tintypes, slides, film, glass, and prints of various sizes. Each item requires different conditions for storage. A part of my job was to make sure these individual requirements were met for each photograph. Negatives were paper sleeved and placed on a shelf; tintypes were put in paper sleeves and given their own boxes. Glass was assessed for damages and scanned, then stored in special boxes on the lowest shelf to avoid accidental shattering. Slides, prints, and film were placed in paper sleeves, and every item, irrespective of type, was given a unique item number.

Throughout the project I was amazed by the Rev. Case’s skill as a photographer! Case, a New Yorker who arrived in Elbowoods in 1922 to serve the Fort Berthold Mission, would work there until much of the area was flooded by the construction of the Garrison Dam. His pictures really captured life around the mission and serve as a time machine for the interested researcher. Below is my personal favorite, which shows a massive crowd gathered to witness the 1934 dedication of the Four Bears Bridge. The image makes the viewer feel as though they are a part of the gathering.

large group of people

SHSND SA 00041-05211

This internship has taught me the value of organization and the proper methods of archival research. Mistakes were sometimes my greatest teacher. If I left my desk untidy or my cart full of photographs it would result in more difficult and slow work the next day. If I procrastinated due to the difficulty of a specific task, it would only make this already challenging task even harder. I quickly learned to clean up every day before I left the office and to never leave a task halfway done promising to complete it another day. These lessons have spilled over into my daily life and have also resulted in a cleaner house and reduced stress.

Finally, I learned how to properly research sources while working within an archive. Though many aspiring historians must learn how to use an archive from the reading room, I have had the good fortune of learning the inner workings of the State Archives from behind the scenes. This has been a great advantage this summer as I have been doing archival research in the Huntington Library’s collection for my undergraduate dissertation project. Moreover, this skill will prove invaluable as I move forward in my career.

In conclusion, this has been a very successful summer internship, and I cannot wait to return to the State Archives in the capacity of a work-study student.


Connor Grenier, Local Government Archives Intern

Though my internship started in May my hiring process began in March. Graduation was rapidly approaching, and I needed to find a position that could offer me work experience related to my career goals. Back in March, this internship seemed like a promising place to start. Now that the internship is complete, I have gained valuable experience that has better informed what my interests are and where my goals are aligned for the future.

My main project at the State Historical Society was running an inventory survey for the material in the local government archives. My tasks gave me insight into archival work. It was interesting to discover the materials that an archive contains and how these are preserved and processed. The work here is never finished. I find this last point to be the most hopeful as I seek to pursue similar work. While I spent most of my time on the inventory project, I also had the opportunity to engage in other archival duties, such as digitizing audio and video material.

paper forms

A collection audit form used during an inventory survey of local government archives materials.

This internship has also shown me the other career routes the state offers. Whether it was painting picnic pavilions at a state historic site, touring another department at the ND Heritage Center & State Museum, or networking with my fellow state interns, I was exposed to the different opportunities and options that this field has to offer. I gained a lot of experience from my tasks, but I learned the most from my colleagues here. Getting to know the work of the people around me was very interesting and eye-opening. I got a better sense of what this work requires and the many avenues people could take within the field. I would also like to note that the work environment at the agency is very fun and kind. Everyone here is willing to teach you something you do not know and is not afraid to have a laugh. Overall, I had a positive time in this position, and I hope that the work that I did reflects that.