GAMING: Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder [Postmortem]

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Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder was a fan-made My Little Pony card game, released in Summer of 2014. It is also, for all intents and purposes, not the normal kind of thing that we would review on Efemerovo.

We here at Eggware.XYZ have something we must admit: we enjoy My Little Pony. We’ve enjoyed it for a long time, since our childhoods. We have enjoyed the latest series, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, since its inception. It is a good television show and an excellent franchise, one that hits all the right notes for its target market of young girls and people well outside it.

It’s not just little girls who love My Little Pony, though. They are those who call themselves “Bronies”. Adults, typically men, have flocked to the 2010 My Little Pony reboot in droves, and they brought a lot of their adult concepts with them. This has been a problematic development for a lot of the young fans of My Little Pony, as the primary resources for My Little Pony content are primarily made by adults, for adults.

Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder was not for My Little Pony‘s target audience. So who was it for, really? After the jump, we’ll explore this game postmortem and delve into some of its more “adult” choices.

Warning: This article is much more mature than the content usually featured on Efemerovo. We discuss a multitude of topics, including sexuality, consent, and incest (uh, yeah, it gets weird). Use discretion and do not view if you are uncomfortable with the subject matter.

My Little Media Sensation, or: A Pony Backstory

My Little Pony was best known before the 2010s as being a once-popular, now-dead 1980s toyline, with a catchy commercial jingle and a cartoon about how the power of friendship can solve any problem. (The cartoon was actually much more scary and inappropriate for children than people seem to remember, but that’s not exactly the focus of this article.) Though it was widely successful with its target audience and then eventually developed a deliberately-cultivated demographic of toy-collecting baby boomers, it just wasn’t very well-received outside of the people who liked it very much.

It’s easy to see, in retrospect, why it was so off-putting: it was marketed to girls, already a vulnerable audience, under the assumption that girls like pretty things. The commercials had girl actors with placid expressions dressed in baby pink outfits, speaking in soft positive voices with the common refrain of “I love you, My Little Pony!”
Though there were people who liked ponies very much and the series was arguably more than just its bubblegum exterior, it still ended up becoming a sore spot on America’s cultural identity. This was hot on the heels of the 1970s, a very precarious time for women; though we’re not going to turn this into a conspiracy article about how bra-burning relates to plastic horses, let’s just say that My Little Pony wasn’t well-received for a lot of reasons.

The franchise laid in dormancy for years – and, here we’ll note that yes, the toys made after the 90s still sold quite well, surprisingly so. But despite its desperate attempts to rebrand itself (once to drop the magical aspects, once to make everything neon, and eventually just dropping all pretenses to make it all about baby-proportioned ponies), it never hit the same cultural relevancy that it used to have.

Until 2010, of course.

For quite a while, in the background, Hasbro had been working with Emmy-Award-winning animator/writer Lauren Faust to rebrand My Little Pony into a cartoon series they actually had hopes of monetizing again. (You might know Faust best from her work on The Powerpuff Girls, a similarly sugar-sweet cartoon franchise that spawned a legion of adult followers.)
Then, in Fall of 2010, released to very minimal fanfare, was My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. The show was an almost instant hit, generating a shockingly large fanbase by the end of the first season. It was from this show that the concept of a “brony” was created: adult fans discovered the show’s tone was surprisingly tolerable and entertaining, with a strong moral center and enjoyable storylines. It was innocent enough, at first, and thanks to the adult’s considerably deeper pockets Hasbro to strong merchandise profits.

On the topic of merchandise is where we finally turn to the real subject of the article.
My Little Pony grew so popular that it even got its own collectible card game: the, well, My Little Pony Collectible Card Game (or MLP: CCG for short). It’s done rather well amongst this adult audience, attracting a range of veteran card gamers. However, this game has received criticism for its obtuse gameplay that seems to actively alienate children and new players: complicated arithmetic and vague card text demanded a comprehensive knowledge of the rules from the get-go.

There is, however, another card game for the world of My Little Pony. It is one made by bronies, for bronies, with a large amount of adult content included. Its name is Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder, and as its name implies, it is about “shipping” ponies together.

What the heck is shipping?

Horrible People Productions, the indie company that produced Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder, has recently declared that they will be shuttering their operations and discontinuing any physical productions of their game. Having played and enjoyed the official MLP: CCG ourselves, we’ve seen occasional comparisons made between it and Secret Shipfic, with some claiming that Secret Shipfic was the more “fun” and “enjoyable” game.

Time for a Disclaimer!

Fans of Twilight Sparkle’s Secret Shipfic Folder might feel like we’re intentionally or unfairly singling the game out, or that we’re making an unfair comparison. At no point do we have the intention of implying that these games are any more than apples or oranges; this is just an exploration of the claims that Secret Shipfic is “more fun and accessible” than MLP: CCG.

We are not saying that Secret Shipfic was a bad game. We genuinely don’t feel like it was – it was fun, lighthearted, and cute when it needed to be. Contrary to what a cursory glance may imply, this is not a ‘callout’ by any means. We are not implying that the game designers had ill intentions or that it endorses illegal behavior. We have no doubt that Secret Shipfic was designed as a humorous game poking fun at the practices of the fandom, and we appreciate it fully on its merits.

The only point this article serves to make is to analyze if Secret Shipfic had any chance of supplanting MLPCCG as a fun card game about My Little Pony. With that, we can start.

The Shipping Begins

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Halfway through an average game of Secret Shipfic, being played on the VASSAL engine.

The game’s lore involves Twilight Sparkle, the main character of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, writing romantic fanfiction about her friends. The basic gameplay revolves around the “shipping grid”, a network of My Little Pony characters connected to each other by “Ship” cards. At the center of this grid is Twilight Sparkle herself, and you connect other ponies to her using the Ship cards.

The game is played by playing the Ship cards and Pony cards in tandem. You first play a Ship card, sliding it underneath a Pony card already in play, and then play another Pony card atop that Ship card (leaving just barely enough visible to show that there’s a ship between them). The two Pony cards, now connected, are considered “shipped”.
The shipping grid expands outwards in a roughly checkerboard formation from there, as more ships attach more ponies together in what becomes an expansive network of cards. To win, you must collect certain “Goal” cards that demand certain ships be made, such as pairing two of the same characters together or having a certain number of a certain type of card on the board at once. By expanding the shipping grid, you accomplish goals and earn points for doing so, and the game is won when one player hits a certain number of points (11 for a two player game).

The Fun

The gameplay is difficult to learn, but easy to master. All of the rules are easily condensed into a few quick-reference cards, making potential rule squabbles easily quashed.

The grid system is fun. Cards suspended on the grid unattached to the main Twilight Sparkle card all get discarded, which means that removing a single well-placed card from the grid can cause a massive destructive domino effect. We played one game that ended hilariously when an enormous chain was destroyed, leaving only three cards (Twilight Sparkle, Lyra, and Derpy Hooves). It’s these kind of antics that make it so enjoyable, and the moments where huge board-changing effects go into play tend to be the best parts of the game. You spend most of the game building the board into a massive sprawl, so it’s most satisfying to see all of that get cleared off.

Some ponies have abilities that can modify the state of the shipping grid. “Swap” abilities can switch the location of two ponies with each other, “Replace” abilities let you play a pony where another pony was and replace it, and “Love Poison” ships let you forcibly move a pony from one spot to another, the most common cause for huge branches of the grid getting destroyed.

The Unfun

There are no cards that can be played during your opponent’s turn, but good luck figuring it out from the cards or rules (an example is Cheerilee, whose card merely says you can discard her to draw two more cards). This isn’t a complaint, just a mere warning for people coming from a My Little Pony Collectible Card Game background.

There are more effects than there are opportunities to use them. It feels a bit disappointing to play a full hand of Swap cards, just to ultimately decide not to swap any cards on the grid. Emptying out your hand becomes aggravatingly common when there are tricky Goals in play, so the grid often becomes excessively large.

Goals can be very hard to accomplish and frequently come down to luck. The decks are shared between all players, so your ability to complete goals comes down entirely to what your opponents have.

Particularly aggravating are the Goal cards that require you to ship ponies with themselves: it’s not impossible, but it is very hard to accomplish and frequently comes down to luck. More often than not, we’d play Ponies with the New Goal effect (discard 1 Goal, draw 1 Goal to replace it) to get rid of those Goals, only to have another one pop up in its place. Then there would be one Rarity on the field, one Rarity in the hand we draw at the end of the turn, the “ship 2 Rarities” Goal would be in the trash, and the Goal in play would be “ship 2 Pinkies”.

It’s funny, actually, when you put it like that. But it isn’t necessarily fun.

Once the grid is enormous and the Goal is inaccessible, the game starts to slow to a crawl. You’ll be checking the board over and over, especially with cards like “Invasive Species” (“Win this goal when 6 Earth Pony/Earth Pony ships are on the grid”). Some goals can become almost impossible to accomplish in certain board states. The “Epidemic” card requires you to play 2 Love Poison cards in 1 turn – but there are only 3 Love Poison cards in the deck, and you may have played some already while trying to trim out the fat.

Secret Shipfic has tons of lore, but maybe too much for it to be enjoyable. There are a lot of cards that require thorough knowledge of not only the show, but the fandom: characters like Crackle the dragon, Prince Blueblood, Iron Will, Tom, and Bloomberg make multiple appearances, despite only appearing in one episode each. The cards “Cult Leader Fluttershy”, “Gypsy Witch Pinkie Pie”, “Cult Meeting”, and “It’s Not Creepy” reference the fanmade gag dub Friendship is Witchcraft. “Pinkamena” and “Step Into My Basement” are references to an extremely violent adult fanfiction.
Sometimes the flavor text on cards is so long that it extends all the way to where the rules should be. This can be very confusing when a card is completely covered in text, but none of it actually has any kind of gameplay effect.

There are a couple of AU (Alternate Universe) cards, and one goal that requires you to play five of them. In practice, it just doesn’t make a lot of sense: “Black Widow Rarity” is not an AU card, nor is “Druid Fluttershy”. “Cult Leader Fluttershy” is AU, but “Gypsy Witch Pinkie Pie” isn’t (despite both cards referencing the same non-canonical source). “Mahou Shoujo Derpy” isn’t AU, despite the fact that we’re pretty sure Muffins never turned into a magical girl, and “Smarty Pants” isn’t AU either even though Smarty Pants is most certainly a doll and not a horse. The Indiegogo expansion doesn’t even seem to try on this front.

The overarching problem is that it takes a long time to play. Seriously, the first time we played, we were playing for at least a full hour and didn’t even manage to finish. In a two-player game, one player must score 11 points to win – Goal cards are typically 1-3 points in value and varyingly difficult to solve, so it can take a long, long time to complete a full game.

Secret Shipfic does not have a fraction of the depth or interaction that MLP: CCG does. It’s a fun, quirky party game that’s best suited to be played in groups, but for two people looking for a legitimate battle of wits, it’s twice as long and half as fun.

The… Uhhh

The primary claim made by Secret Shipfic‘s anti-MLP: CCG advocates is that the mechanics are more fun and friendly, and less destructive and violent compared to the official card game. Is that really true?

Yes, you don’t get an event thrown at you to miserably block or steal your goal – no, you just get a “Swap” or “Replace” character played to block you from reaching goals, or a “Love Poison” that terminates an entire branch of the grid.

“What is a Love Poison anyway?” you may be asking, since we’ve brought it up a few times now as one of our griefs with the game but have yet to explain why. In the context of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic cartoon, the Love Poison is an object that features in a Valentine’s Day episode. It’s a ‘love potion’ that causes its victim to fall in passionate love – so passionate, in fact, that they’ll abandon any previous preoccupations and do nothing but stare at their object of affections.
In Secret Shipfic, the Love Poison is a Ship card with special ruling. First you attach it to a pony like normal, but then instead of playing a Pony card from your hand with the empty end of the Ship card, you have to move another Pony from the board and attach it to the empty end. The implication is that the Ship the second pony was in will crumble (and you have to discard any cards that are floating unattached to the rest of the board), and they will fall in love with the card they’ve now been forcibly attached to.

The game doesn’t necessarily condone or celebrate this (in fact, the flavor text attached implies it’s more of a ‘zombie apocalypse’ type of deal), but it’s hard to avoid, especially because strategy practically relies on its destructive effects. Needless to say that the concept of drinking a liquid that makes you consent to acts with someone you wouldn’t normally be interested in… brings up some unsavory comparisons.

Inappropriateness seems to be the theme. Several cards reference sexual situations. “It’s Magical: Horns Are Touching”, “Unexpected Pregnancy”, “Friendship is Benefits”, and “They’re at it again?!” are just a few. And we’ve really got to wonder where the claim that Secret Shipfic isn’t violent comes from, because the card “Pinkamena” outright states that she murders whichever cards you choose to discard with her power, whilst ship cards “Step Into My Basement” and “Murder Turns Me On” are more of the same.

There are some additions that aren’t just troublesome, but unfun. Every card has a gender symbol, either male or female. Only 20% of the Goal cards rely on gender, which shrinks to a paltry 15% when you add the Extra Credit expansion. There are less than ten Ship cards to change your Pony’s gender, and only 2 Goal cards that actually rely on having your Pony’s gender changed.
The Ships labeled “Gender Change” actually do come in handy for accomplishing the gender-related Goals, as there’s over twice as many Pony cards labeled Female as ones labeled Male. But the question comes up: why have it at all? The game feels like it would function more than just fine without it, since it would free up space and eliminate the amount of turns wasted on dead draws.

The Gender Change cards made us feel a bit uncomfortable as we played – in particular, the card “Dude Looks Like A Lady” features the pony Caramel, who was once often called the ‘transgender’ pony by fans due to an episode where his design was mistakenly recycled for a background mare. This spun off into image macros and a mild following of fans who headcanoned him as trans; though he continued reappearing as male and the incident was written off, it still made us pause when we saw the card with its title and subtext (referring to Caramel as “the most beautiful stallion in all of Equestria”).
The others aren’t quite as sour, but some are still a bit jarring: “Can I Tell You A Secret?” revolves around a Crying Game-esque ‘penis reveal’ (implying that talking about your genitals transforms you into your assigned gender?), for one, and the rest reference typical genderbending tropes. Another card, “Startling Confession”, shows Rainbow Dash recoiling in horror after presumably learning a character’s ‘true’ gender.

On the topic of gender, there’s still the way the game handles homosexual pairings. You can freely play any card with any other card, for better or for worse. Still, the Goals involving this leave a bit to be desired: a title like “I Swear I’m Not Gay!” is exactly what it sounds like. “Just Experimenting” revolves around the early My Little Pony fandom’s incessant quabbling over whether or not Rainbow Dash is a lesbian. “Needs More Lesbians” feels almost predatory in its approach. “Quite.”, a card involving pairing two males together, contains flavor text that ends on the note “it was all very MANLY.”
There’s no explicit discouraging of pairing same-gender characters together, and in fact more cards revolve around that than heteroromantic shipping, but the queer cards revel in disappointingly stereotypical tropes.

Then there’s cards that derive their humor from racial issues. “My Waifu” is a Goal card that requires you to ship a Pony with the OC keyword and a Pony with the Mane 6 keyword, and there is a Pony card named “Waifu Thief Flash Sentry”.

Wait, what does that even mean?

The last few things were very much subjectively offensive on a personal level, though. It’s what comes next that gets weird.

Here’s a rhetorical game:
“It’s Not Creepy!” is a Goal that gives you 2 points for shipping Twilight Sparkle with her brother, Shining Armor. You play Royal Guard Shining Armor (a card with flavor text referencing him confessing his love for his sister) with “There Are No Brakes on the Love Train”, a Ship card that references a meme about nonconsensual sex. “Cheerilee” is a card with flavor text that states she doesn’t want to be shipped. The Goal “I Guess You’ll Do” gives you 2 points for shipping Twilight Sparkle with Cheerilee, so you pair them together with the Ship card “Trading Up”, which depicts Cheerilee unhappy to be with Twilight Sparkle. The Goal “Family Appreciation Day” gives you 2 points for shipping four Ponies with the Apple keyword (which includes Applejack and her family). Maybe you’ll play “Applejack’s Parents” for a side dosage of necrophilia. Maybe somewhere in there you’ll play the Ship “Blind Date”, which features Big Mac with his cousin Braeburn. You can get 2 points with “Princess Pile”, a Goal that allows you to meet its requirements by shipping Princess Celestia with two versions of her sister. Then you might as well get Love Poisons involved: if you play 2 Love Poison cards in a single turn, you can win the 3 points off of Epidemic.

And hey, congratulations. You just won the game by committing several major felonies.

Accessibility

Although the game does exist in a physical form, it was usually only available for purchasing at My Little Pony fan conventions. Now that the company has dissolved, there’ll never be any more cards for purchase. Fortunately, the website provides a variety of ways to play the game over the internet; unfortunately, none of them are easily accessible.

There are three ways listed: Playing over Vassal, a digital tabletop emulator; using Tabletop Simulator, a full gaming table simulator complete with its own physics engine; and a fan-made program specifically designed for playing Secret Shipfic. We weren’t able to test the Tabletop Simulator method of playing the game as we do not own it (it is $14.99 on Steam), but we have attempted to play the game on both Vassal and the standalone program.

Of the two, Vassal was the superior but was fraught with problems. Frequently while playing on Vassal, cards would disappear from the board – not just get discarded, no, but disappear entirely and become completely unplayable. This happened the worst with the goal cards, where not just individual goals but sometimes the entire goal deck would become inaccessible, meaning that we would have to stop the game halfway through and give up.
On top of that were the minor aggravations. One card (“Bad Pony! Go To My Room!”) was ALWAYS face down, for some reason, and would have to be manually reversed. The Extra Credit expansion seems to be completely unfinished, as half the cards we pulled were missing art (there’s no way to guess from the download page that it’s unfinished, and you can download a PDF full of all the finished cards off of the website).

We were not able to get the standalone game working at all, due to this program requiring port forwarding to work. The unfinished documentation was sparse, and there were additional warnings that it would crash often, which didn’t feel very worth it when we were having enough problems. We eventually abandoned trying to use it, and went back to playing on Vassal.

After the fact…

So, did Secret Shipfic have any hopes of replacing MLP: CCG?

Absolutely not. Secret Shipfic was not accessible by any means for someone who doesn’t care about ponies. This was a card game by My Little Pony fans, for My Little Pony fans – and a specific subset of fans at that, namely people who enjoy shipping. Despite being a card game based off of a children’s show, Secret Shipfic was not for children. At the same time, it seemed to appeal to only a very small facet of adults.

Even the claim that it’s better made for “bronies” is a tall order, as many bronies are still children. We would not let a child play this game. We would not let a child know this game existed, if we could help it. You might call us prudish, or taking things too seriously, but we’re pretty sure that Friendship is Magic is about friendship and magic, not sex and romance. Sure, the official MLP: CCG may inherently be about conflict, but it’s a lot friendlier than implied rape and explicit incest.

It’s a comedy game, obviously, it’s supposed to be funny and it succeeds at that. But the humor is juvenile at best, and at worst it becomes predatory. Fun can frequently come at the sacrifice of gameplay – and people’s personal well-being. When your fun is exclusionary of people who would be sensitive to the content therein, it ceases to be “accessible”.

This wasn’t the answer that MLP: CCG needed, nor was it ever intended to be so. What a card game like MLP: CCG needs to thrive is dedicated fans, willing to make the scene more accessible and fun for new players. It shouldn’t, wouldn’t, and can’t become completely supplanted by something that only a small subset of the original userbase can even hope to play.

It wasn’t a bad game. It just wasn’t a good game, either. It had a simple-to-grasp core, engaging gameplay, and made for some fun times, but its aesthetic was so off-putting and alienating that it just wasn’t really enjoyable to play for anyone but the most dedicated of fan.

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