I’ve given up on board games lately. Well, to clarify: I’ve given up playing board games. At least for a while.
A couple of years ago, I got back into tabletop strategy games after a long hiatus. It had been a decade or so since I’d last played anything remotely involved, and I was hoping that indulging in Portland’s active boardgaming scene would both satisfy the urge I had to play and give me opportunities to commune with like-minded nerds. And while the social aspect of the gaming has been enjoyable (mostly), I noticed recently that the actual gameplay was becoming monotonous and unsatisfying. And it took a little reflection to figure out why.
I’ve seen this movie before
Board games have undergone something of a renaissance over the last ten years or so, with an explosion of titles that has given people of all ages, interests, and skill levels something to play. And yet … the more games I play, the more I notice repeating patterns underneath all the rules and fancy components. Part of this is by design, and part is a limitation of the format: board games are discreet, standalone contests meant to be played in a single session, so the rules have to be easy to pick up and streamlined enough to keep the experience relatively brief. Even games falling on the “epic” end of the length spectrum have more in common (in terms of mechanics) with light, casual games than not.
Despite dozens of kinds of game mechanics, turn sequences, rules for scoring, bargaining and bidding, and various themes and tones, board games provide a very finite, bottled experience. For ninety minutes, perhaps you’re a railroad tycoon; you make the same decisions as a railroad tycoon, and try to become the richest, most powerful railroad tycoon by then end of ten rounds of play. In the end, however, all the bits go back in the box, you either won or didn’t win … and everything resets to zero, so to speak. These games excel at simulating a chess-like competition in brief spurts, but the thrill is ephemeral.
While these gaming sessions are challenging in a competitive sense, they lack a kind of narrative depth. Board games are meant to be quick, one-off, and limited in scope. It’s part of their mainstream appeal. An analog in another realm of entertainment is movies: little bite-sized worlds you can plug into, experience for ninety minutes, then step out of and mostly forget.
What I’m looking for in my tabletop interactions is a more long-lasting and engrossing form of entertainment. The equivalent of a good TV series, or a fat novel. Experiences with a longer timeline. Characters who develop over time—have “arcs”, as writers say. Rules that account for the possibility that players might veer “off the rails” of a game’s set-up scenario and do something completely novel and unforeseen. States that persist and continue across sessions. All of these qualities are found in abundance in another form of games: roleplaying.
Funny little dice
While I certainly played children’s board games such as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land at an early age, my true baptism into tabletop gaming was Dungeons & Dragons. I remember getting the Basic set (the purple box, with blue dice and a crayon whose purpose was not clear to me until years later) before a trip to Florida to stay with my grandparents.
For those unfamiliar with the seminal roleplaying game, in a nutshell: a narrator of sorts (the “dungeon master”) leads players through adventures by describing scenes and enabling their characters to take actions. It’s a kind of collaborative storytelling, but with extensive rules to govern combat, magic, social interaction, physical and mental feats, and other intricacies of the swords and sorcery setting.
My brother and I were hooked almost immediately; here was a game powered by pure imagination, our favorite resource. We were constantly creating worlds and populating them with characters, creatures, magic and weird technologies. To us, roleplaying games like D&D were tools to help refine our creativity. We went on to create our own game systems to augment those worlds we’d already created.
RPGs have their drawbacks, of course. They require a lot of time and a dedicated group of players. Characters can take hours to create, and individual adventures can take much longer than that. For continuity’s sake, the GM (gamemaster) has to generate supporting materials—in the form of maps, character and setting descriptions, and the like—to account for situations the players are likely to encounter within a given adventure. And the gameplay itself is rather abstract: often, the action takes place entirely within the imaginations of the participants, without aid of physical representations of the characters and their surroundings.
While RPGs (roleplaying games) are near and dear to my heart, there’s still something seductive about a well designed board game: in particular, good physical components can make a game a joy to play. Because of the openness of RPGs, however, it can be hard to provide detailed bits, since characters are custom made and settings can change according to the players’ whims. Somewhere, there’s a middle ground I want to find where the depth of roleplaying gets paired with the components of board games.
It occurs to me, therefore, that my impetus for designing board games is a desire to craft the type of gameplay experience I want: a board game/roleplaying game hybrid that gives players flexibility to explore the narrative possibilities of a concept while retaining the visual pizazz of the best tabletop offerings.
I find myself leaning closer to wanting to craft systems than discreet experiences. That is to say, I envision sets of rules that enable a variety of scenarios or styles of play, instead of restricting players to a fixed starting position and win condition. To borrow a metaphor from the world of computers, board games are designed like standalone apps; roleplaying games are closer to programming languages.
This was not a conscious diversion from the board game mainstream; rather, I’m making the observation looking back at the larger projects I’ve been dabbling with in the past 20 years or so. Here are three that I think best fit the model I’m describing.
I’ve blogged previously about Transgalactic, and will do so again soon. It’s my universal space empire sim incorporating all the elements that make far-future science fiction compelling: space travel, exploration, conflict, research and technological development, rare commodities and interstellar trade, religion, mass media, politics, espionage, heroes and villains, and enough random events to keep things interesting.
My hope is to have a modular system that enables players to tailor a game to suit their tastes: “layers” can be added or removed to increase complexity or speed up the game. And game setups will be scenario-based, so the start and victory conditions could vary according to what kind of experience players want. I’ve also got a faction creation system in mind, so players could create an identity that suits their style of play: from robotic marauders bent on galactic domination, to spacefaring alien traders maximizing profits, to hive minds seeking the answers to reality and existence, to inquisitive humans yearning for freedom in space.
Transgalactic is currently in flux, but I hope to do some small-scale playtesting in the near future. I’m aiming for a system that will allow one to simulate any of the familiar pop culture sci-fi stories, from plucky rebels battling an evil empire, to humans fleeing murderous robot hordes, to entrenched factions engaging in a vicious war of treachery and subterfuge to control the galaxy’s single most precious resource. Even if I fall short of this lofty goal, if I get close to it, I’ll be happy.
While there are several urban development games out there (including Suburbia, which I like a lot), none of them really captures the semi-collaborative nature of city building. That is to say, in those games, players each build their own city and compete to win in various categories of success. The real opportunity, in my mind, with a game that simulates urban development is having players with various and opposing visions compete to construct the same city.
My current prototype of Metropolis (boring name, placeholder only) lays down a grid of terrain and then challenges players, who take the roles of real estate developers, to buy land and construct buildings of various zone in order to attract inhabitants and businesses to the city. Players will also need to cooperate and bargain, as elected members to the nascent city council, to pass zoning measures, fund new roads and other public works, and eventually get elected to higher offices such as police chief, school superintendent, city council chair, or (eventually, as a possible victory condition) mayor. As a collective governing body, they will also have to deal with providing electricity, power, health services, and education to their citizens while dealing with crime, poverty, unemployment, pollution and traffic, all of which will affect the value of their properties, their individual approval ratings, and the overall attitude of the people living in their city.
Metropolis has a lot of fun bits, including cardboard roads and multicolored wooden buildings, but it’s still in early stages of rules creation. But if it becomes what I want it to be, it’ll enable players to create their own personas, interact, and evolve along with the miniature city they collectively create.
The idea I call Nemesis came to me back in the ’90s: a dungeon crawl with a modular board, in which one player took the role of the evil mastermind and his minions while the others controlled the heroes on a quest to stop them. I’d never played HeroQuest, which I now know is a similar concept, and this was long before Fantasy Flight’s Descent was published. But, the field is already populated with competitors.
I think my version of the concept has enough unique qualities to stand out from its predecessors, but I haven’t done much development on it. I think the base system could be applied to a number of different genres (fantasy, science fiction, horror) with only minor tinkering, but the two versions I’ve done the most design on are a fantasy quest and an Aliens-style race through an infested space colony.
The twist with the fantasy version of Nemesis (which I’m calling A Darkening Sphere) is that the heroes can control multiple characters, comprising a party of up to 12; while new characters can be recruited along the way, the composition of the group will affect its performance. Good and evil characters will interfere with each others’ powers, and fire and water magic cancel each other out, but a one-sided party will too easily fall prey to its opposite. I’ve got some ideas for map tiles and a discovery system that should make the dungeon crawl tense and interesting, as well as some interesting ways to track character stats and inventories. The game In the end, I need to make some bits and fiddle with it more.
The sci-fi bug hunt (XTerminators) will be more fast-paced and tense. The idea is the players (space marines) are trapped in an alien-infested research facility and must descend to its lowest levels to shut down a runaway reactor. Meanwhile, the insect-like critters in the facility have mutated and will try to kill the heroes at every opportunity. As characters stumble through the darkened rooms and corridors, aliens will pop out of the shadows to attack without warning. Malfunctioning security doors, toxic chemical spills, and other environmental hazards will make the adventure all the more harrowing.
Nemesis needs a lot of work, but it would be the simplest (in terms of rules) of the three ideas listed. And yet, the game could be as limited or expansive as the players wanted: the quest to destroy the dark lord could span three levels or thirty. There’s room for some limited character development as well.
Now get busy
Conclusion: now that I’m not playing games, I’ve got some extra time on my hands. While most of that time is going to be used writing (I still have a novel to finish, dammit), I can also distract myself by working on the above ideas. Maybe if I get some playtesting time on one of these weird, chimeric pseudo-RPGs, I’ll feel better about board games in general. Because variety, spice, life and all that.