It’s My Game, You’re Just Living In It

On Friday, March 9, 2012, the Boston Globe published an article called “Inside the Board Game Renaissance,” wherein the Spoiled Flush duo was featured and quoted. It’s a long article that discusses a number of big board game ideas, while remaining, I think, accessible to non-gamers who might be interested in learning more about the hobby — and the craft — of board games. In among all these ideas, comments, and quotes, I am personally quoted once.

 playing a video game means “playing in someone else’s world,” whereas a board game allows you to create your own.

Since the article hit the web, I’ve been asked by a few curious gamers  to explain just what I meant by this, so I thought I’d take some time and craft a response here.

When you play a video game, even a deep video game RPG, every time you turn on the game for the first time, the same thing happens. No matter who you are, or where you are, the game’s pre-set triggers force certain pre-written interactions. If you talk to Farmer John, he’ll tell you to get the mango. After you’ve gotten the mango, he’ll give you a key. And so on. When you shoot the zombie in the head, it falls down dead. Though video games have gotten extremely robust over the years in terms of giving players choices and different ways of interacting with the game world, and there are some exceptions to every rule, you are playing in a game world you have little control over.

How does a board game allow you to create your own world? Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons obviously give players this opportunity in a very direct way, and I have designed such games, but that isn’t exactly what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about physical media games — card games, board games, strategy games, party games and so on. You might be wondering how these differ in any way from a video game in terms of playing in somebody else’s world vs. creating your own. After all, you’re given a very specific set of rules, lists of things you can and can’t do, and even given goals by the game designers. You’re very much in their world, not yours. When you sit down to play a game of Monopoly or Settlers of Catan, you’re not creating a world.

Or are you?

Each time you sit down to play Settlers, the first thing you do is put down tiles, making the world of the game, which the players will inhabit in their minds. The rules tell you how to do this, of course, but it will be different every time you play the game. (This effect has been exacerbated by the latest trend of games that are hyper-decision driven or customizable, such as Dominion, or its great uncle Magic the Gathering. You are building the game from the ground up each time you play in a very real way.)

Once the framework has been established (laying the tiles or setting up the board), the world of the game is populated by the players. Each player inhabits the world of the board game, affecting his or her will onto it, and steering the course of the game through player decisions.

Human beings are a species of story tellers. We love stories, and love to frame events as stories. A well-designed game will support a distinct beginning, middle, and end, and by the time it’s over, the players should feel like they’ve expressed something, whether through their personality, strategy, or some combination of the two. The events of the game become the story of the world created by the players. “Do you remember how I did this? And then you did that? But then I did THAT?” Every gaming group is rich with personal narratives such as this. Depending upon who pulls up to the table, the island of Catan could be a paradise full of friendly traders, or a collapsing society of bitter back stabbers. The players create this world through their actions.

Going beyond even this, the rules of a board game can be broken. They can be changed and re-written. If you don’t like the brick tiles clumped together, you can shift them around, for example. The game is more malleable. Because you are moving a physical piece, the game can be tinkered with. People have house rules and tweaks. As a designer who games with other designers and developers, this is happens almost as frequently as not at my table.

This takes us back to idea of the table itself. Board games, to a far larger extent than most video games, are strongly affected by the table. By this, I mean the players sitting down to play on a given occasion. A game of the flawed classic Monopoly, with its trades and auctions, will vary wildly based on the personalities present and strategies employed for that specific play-through of the game. This is especially true for personality-drive games like X-Machina, Apples to Apples, and a host of other games where the goal is to impress your friends with your wit and whimsy. This is even true of party and trivia games like Cranium, where the fun is generated not by the flow of the game, but primarily by the social interactions of the players.

Claiming a round of X-Machina or Who Beats Who enables gamers to “create their own world” might seem a touch dramatic as a metaphor, but I think it’s true. Each new play creates new situations and new opportunities for fun. The fun of playing games is a two-way street. No board game by itself can create fun. Instead, they provide a framework for the players to create fun. Sometimes fun is derived from the rules of the game, learning and following those rules, and meeting and overcoming the challenges set up by this system and one’s fellow players. Other times, the enjoyment is derived mostly from the social experience  of engaging with your friends around the table. Each game has it’s own spot on a continuum of system-generated and player-generated fun.

When I design a game, I always think about the people who will be playing it, whether that’s me, my over-educated and hyper-intellectual designer friends, or a table of six-year-olds at a birthday party. I think about why carrying out the actions of the game will be fun, what the players might do, and how they might feel when they do it. Is this the case with video game designers, too? Probably. But they enjoy the luxury (and must undertake the weighty task) of building an incredibly intricate world within which the action will take place, with unbreakable rules that cannot be changed, argued with, or misunderstood. With board games, it’s just you, your friends, and the cardboard. And that’s what excites me about designing them.


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