Sam “King of the Hilltop”
When defining a game design or a board game, it is often more then just the theme that defines the game. It’s the actions, the mechanics, and the interactions between players along with the theme that define what a game is. For me, I sum that up as the “story” of the game.
Meriam-Webster defines story as – an account of incidents or events. There are some other ways to define it but I like this description. It is very broad and applicable to entertainment. These incidents and events allow a board game to be a story and it manifests in your life all the time when it comes to board games.
When you are introducing a board game to someone, how do you do it? You may start off with, “So, this is a game about being a corporation and you are Terraforming Mars!” That is a good beginning. It establishes the kind of story/experience that is going to happen. However, I find that it rarely ends there. If there is an interest, you have to go deeper, “Well, it’s a game that we can play for the 4 of us. It will take 2 hours-ish. It’s a game where you try and get points by accomplishing goals and building up your corporation’s ability to plant trees, build cities, research science and technologies, and develop infratructure for Mars.”
You have established their interest and now you have a general idea of different things you can choose to do in the game. Does that sound interesting enough to play? For me, it’s not only the theme that gets me to buy a game, but how the gameplay manifests and matters to the game, or in other words, how do the actions we make relate to the story?
This experience is what drives me to love board games. The choices you make, the puzzles you have to figure out, and how that all plays together with the theme to create a unique play experience, or story.
Who, What, Where, Why, How – Creating the Story
I think a good way to break down a board game is to break it down like you would a story. Who, What, Where, Why, and How.
Who – Who is going to play? How many people? This is another factor that we sometimes overlook as a designer because we become so used to certain ideas. If I were to tell you to design a stereotypical Euro game, how many players would you say it would be? 2-4? 1-5? How often have you seen one able to comfortably play with 6 players? Why is that? The number of players weighs heavily on the design process as typically the more complicated a game becomes, the less players it will be able to play. Not always true but that will then affect the decision of how much should a player be doing on their turn or during the round.
What – This is the theme of the game, what is taking place. This one can be difficult or easy depending on how you approach game design but this is the central idea that ties everything together. Terraforming Mars is a good example of this. All of the different choices in the game lead back to the idea of terraforming a planet called Mars. Whether it’s improving the oxygen level, blowing up meteors, or seeking fame by accomplishing various goals. All actions lead to the theme or the “what” in this case.
Where – The medium that you choose for the game matters. Will it be a board game played in person? Will it be accessible to be played online via audio or video calls? Will it be available online? Is it a video game? We tend to make these choices fairly quickly and many times without much thought but I have seen a lot more discussion about this subject since the pandemic. The medium by which the game is played needs to be considered carefully. Some games can strongly benefit from the ability to play in a variety of ways. One example I noticed is quite a few roll and write style games being played online without the use of Tabletop Simulator or any software mediums other than Skype.
This consideration will even go as far to affect how people feel about a game. A recent discussion happened where someone mentioned how much they missed the physicality of board games since they played almost exclusively online for a year. When they went back to handling physical coins and talking in person, the games they grew bored of over the year became much more enjoyable to them. The way we tell a message as a board game designer is worth the effort. Please don’t forget how you are going to tell the story.
Why – This is the reason to win and the win condition. In Terraforming Mars the player becomes the most influential force behind the terraforming of the planet. You do that by having the most Victory Points. I wish they would have renamed them to Influence Points as it fits the theme and story better but Victory Points is not confusing and easy to understand. Most people know what Victory Points are.
In some games, it is to be the last one standing. In others, the most points. In others, have the least number of points. This is all a reflection of how the game is supposed to be played. In a game with the last one standing, that is likely a very competitive game and you know it from the start. In a game where you earn victory points, you are likely building something or doing actions to provide points, I would guess a form of engine building in one of its many forms.
How – The mechanics of the game. This is literally how the game is played and depending on how a game is designed, it will effect the mood and feel of the game. For example, a very popular game mechanic is worker placement. You place a worker down in a location and get the benefits of that location. However, many games of that style also brings in a denial component. If I place a worker there, other players can’t play there or they have to pay extra in order to do get the same benefit. This provides a bit of anxiety and attention from other players as you seek the best locations for your workers. This inherently feels different from Yahtzee style dice mechanics, where you have a set of dice and you roll them and may have additional re-rolls in order to try and accomplish an objective, earn points, make certain patterns. There is anxiety but it has more to do with probability and less pointed at the other players.
The Full Story
I woud honestly challenge any designer working on a game to fill out these 5 questions. It will be up to you how it all glues together in the long run but this can be a useful tool to use if you feel like a design is not working together. The different aspects of the game feel clunky and unrelated. You can even drill this down to every aspect of the game. Take a particular mechanic you are using and fill out the 5 questions related to that mechanic. Who is using the mechanic? What is the mechanic thematically? Where is the mechanic taking place? Why use this mechanic and why does it help a player win? How is the mechanic being used physically?
By examining our game designs from the perspective of a story, it can show us the game’s logic and how that is then interpreted by a board game.
Ed “Duke of BAzlandia”
I Enjoy The Wheel of Time Adaptation
There, I have said it. I mean it. If you were to ask my brother, I have just committed a heresy punishable by death. But, alas, I have to admit I enjoy the show. I enjoy the story. To give you some background, I started reading The Wheel of Time back in the mid 90’s. I was in middle school and I enjoyed reading those big thick fantasy novels. I hate to admit but there were even times I got grounded and not from TV or video games but from reading. I know, nerd.
The story contained in The Wheel of Time is something I have enjoyed through the decades. I have gone back and read the entire series twice and have read several individual books in the series multiple times more than that. When I heard there was going to be a television adaptation, I was excited, but also nervous. There being the “Winter Dragon” adaptation of the first book’s prologue…. yeah, just pretend that doesn’t exist. You will be better off never witnessing that.
I was also excited since adaptations of books and other media into television and movies have become better. Knowing all of this I set myself up to not being disappointed on release date by staying abreast of all the news and rumors. One of the ways I set myself up for success was telling myself that as long as they set the world up correctly and didn’t break or completely alter the integrity of the world, I could enjoy the show.
When I talk about the integrity of the world, I refer to the basis of how things work and what is feasible for character, etc. What works in a book doesn’t necessarily work on screen. Examples of this are Inner dialogues, vast world descriptions, long dialogues on how a particular culture operates, or even the sheer mass of characters with small parts that show up in Book 1 and then not again until Book 7.
In the world of The Wheel of Time there are things called portal stones. Basically, magic users can use these to visit and see alternate realities of their world. I view the television show as one of these alternate realities. This allows for rearranging of events, aging of characters, etc. This doesn’t mean I agree with all of the decisions made for the adaptation but it does mean I can understand it and still enjoy the show.
What does this all have to do with board games? Board games are stories. They tell some sort of story based on the theme of the game. Whether this is players crawling through dungeons (Hero Quest), Cult members killing each other (Cult of the Deep), European gem mining (Splendor), two armies at war (Chess or Go) or even the colonization of Mars (Terraforming Mars). Each game tells a story and each time a game is played it tells a variant of the same story. Events happen in different ways, times, and with different characters. But the game world still exists and still maintains its integrity, or in this particular case, game rules. A good game tells a good story as the game events unfold. There are close calls, tense moments, and players watching as their strategy unfolds.
Replayability in a game in many ways is like adapting a book to a television story. It can’t be the same story but it needs to maintain that same essence or integrity. When an adaptation goes bad it is usually due to breaking the integrity of the story. In games, replayability needs to add or reorder the game so it isn’t the same game. It needs to tell the same story but in a different way. It needs to continue to engage players, bring back the same ups and downs as the first couple of plays but in a way that is not the same or monotonous. If a game revolves around the same strategy and that is the only option, it loses something of itself through multiple play throughs. It isn’t going to be the game that comes out every game night. It will be the game that comes out a few times and then goes to the shelf to collect dust.
I think it is important to keep in mind when designing games that really you are designing a world where players will go to create a story, using the rules that you have laid out.