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Terms of Art: Building Language for Board Game Criticism, Design and Casual Discourse

Oliver Kiley
United States
Ann Arbor
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I feel another zeitgeist moment coming on in the exciting world of boardgame terminology, taxonomy and criticism (par for the course around here!). Precipitating this sense was that I recently listened to the excellent interview The Thoughtful Gamer held with Dan Thurot (of Space-Biff), where the two discussed board game criticism and language (henceforth referred to as “the podcast”). The discussion tapped into many key aspects of my own journey through this hobby as a player, as a designer, and as a critic - and so it resonated quite strongly.

At one point in the interview, Dan Thurot, speaking on the subject of language and methods for criticism said (and I’m paraphrasing), “If someone has a better framework for criticism I’m all ears!”. <Raises Hand>. I think I have one (or at least the foundation for one)!. So to Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer, this post is dedicated to you, your keen insights, and your great contributions to the critical body!

From gallery of Mezmorki

First, a little background and context

I joined BGG in 2010 and started this blog in late 2011. The blog has been, were I to summarize its overall conceit, an endeavor to advance the language of games as it relates to both playing, critiquing, and designing games. Three legs of a stool.

While I’ve been a game player all my life (and I just turned 40 for the curious), the deluge of new games I would discover through BGG and the exploding hobby market bombarded me with a slew of terminology and ways of talking about games. What did we mean by depth? Or by interesting decisions? What was an engine building game compared to an Ameritrash game? Were these terms even speaking to the same level of classification or to something different? I wanted to understand the language and its taxonomies, as both a player and a consumer, so I could find out what I liked and how to refer to it and talk about it with others competently.

I’ve also been a game designer for nearly as long as I’ve played games, constantly tinkering and houseruling games or designing up new games from scratch. I found that having a handle on the language of game design and being able to articulate how a certain set of mechanics translates into a certain intended experience, is invaluable for being able to talk with fellow designers or even to independently critique my own designs. Answering basic questions like “Is this game achieving its design goals?” is hard to answer precisely, but fundamental to making games. You need clear language to do it. As my language grew, I found my ability to think creatively about design grew in turn.

The last leg of the stool is related to criticism. Through writing a handful of reviews, participating in the Voice of Experience contests (as a judge), and writing for Explorminate, I found myself increasingly engaged in the critical analysis of games. I’ve had a strong desire to go beyond “reviews” and really dig into the how and why of a game. Critique and criticism, as Dan Thurot points out in the podcast, is necessary for advancing a form of art or media. Through critical analysis, we can advocate for “better” designs and advance the industry (more on “better” later on).

Why Bother with Game Language?

I mentioned this being a zeitgeist moment (at least for me personally). In tandem to listening to this podcast (plus reflecting on Dan Thurot’s and The Thoughtful Gamer’s writings on theme) I’ve been engaged in a number of recent BGG discussions that cut to the heart of why language matters at a practical level to the players themselves.
Case #1: A BGG Video on Top 10 Abstracts raised my hackles a bit when the vast majority of games listed as abstracts (and the purported top 10 that the video creators had played I might add) were not games I would even consider Abstract (with a capital-A) in the first place. How could our respective understandings of what makes an abstract game be so wildly different? And how does this in turn reinforce or erode the broader community understanding of what an Abstract game is?
Case #2: A recent thread requested that use of the term Dudes on a Map be stopped and the term replaced with something more inclusive (i..e Troops on a Map or a Boots on a Map). What I found illuminating was the following (a) Many people weren’t familiar with the term’s history and what it intended to describe; (b) Alternatives were proposed that missed the mark due to not understanding the historic usage; and (c) Many people questioned why such a term for describing a distinct “style” of game was even warranted in the first place (e.g. why not just call it an Area Control game?). All of this underscored the need for more robust language.
Case #3: A subplot in case #2 (and not a new one) was what people meant by the term Wargame or Wargaming - and this relates a bit to the risks inherent in not reinforcing our language and thus letting it erode. One commenter said their definition of a wargame is broad enough to compass everything from Chess to Case Blue - indeed any game with a hint of warfare could be a wargame. This varies considerably from what many others feel a “Wargame” is, with respect to a more narrow style of game with a history and set of conventions unique to that style. Ask someone who cut their teeth playing Avalon Hill games in the 70’s and you can be sure Chess isn’t a wargame.
And throughout these many years of discussing game classification, taxonomies, and language, I routinely run into people posing the question: “why bother”. Their reasons are many: Definitions and terms can’t possibly be perfect (hint: they never are); no one will ever use these terms correctly (hint: they WILL be used incorrectly, but we can try to inform nonetheless); languages evolve and we shouldn’t try to constrain it (hint: that has been and will continue to be the case regardless); who made you an authority (hint: no one did, I speak only for myself).

I should clarify that my intent isn’t to be dictatorial with developing terms of art for board games. Languages ARE living things and they evolve and grow. But within a context of criticism, it is important to have some common basis of understanding in order to converse effectively.

I often think this: What is vitally important, and so often missing, is that someone reading criticism (whether a more casual review or an in-depth analysis) be able to ascertain how the critic is using a particular term so that the critics bias, opinion, and perspectives can be considered relative to your own.

You and I might have a different working definition of what an abstract game is, but so long as I understand what you mean by abstract, and that you understand what I mean, then we can have a fruitful discussion. In the absence of a respective understanding, discourse is more challenging! Writing down in a framework or a lexicon what we mean by different terms can help us gain mutual understanding.

Case in point: Dan and The Thoughtful Gamer were discussing situations where technical language wasn’t shared or commonly understood between fields of study, often at a foundational level, which led to gross misunderstanding about what the two fields of study were each talking about. They also imagined a future, as has occurred in other media (literature, film critique, etc.), where different schools or styles of criticism evolved and weren’t easily understood by each other. Who knows if that fate can be avoided (hint: probably not), but for those of us invested in game criticism, we can endeavor to build and document a shared language such that it is a resource available to anyone who wishes to use it, or a reference point for those consuming the criticism.

You Said Something about a Framework?

One of my earliest posts, Towards a Science of Boardgames (2012), established my blogging and criticism trajectory, laying initial groundwork that I’ve continued to explore, build upon, and refine. It created a roadmap of sorts that myself, and many other contributors, worked through as part of the Game Genome Project.

To cut to the case, this work culminated in a framework for understanding games and being able to navigate a line of thinking and rationalization from the mechanics and observable “facts” of a game up to how it creates a certain intended experience. This framework for understanding games, which I called the Genomic Framework for Game Analysis did not spring out of a vacuum, but was built on prior works, such as the MDA Framework, Jesse Schell’s Tetrad, and writings by Mark Major on Theme vs. Mechanics.

While I implore you to check out the full article on the framework, I can provide an abbreviated version below. My intention isn’t to dig too far into the specific language today, but rather to highlight the way in which this framework and associated terminology might be used as a design, critique, and discussion aid.

The framework describes four levels of systems at work in a game. I like to imagine it as a 4-layer pyramid as follows:

Fundamentals (F): The bottom level is the foundation, or the fundamentals. These are the more objective and observable facts about the game: the rules, the components/systems, the context/setting, the players.

Intrinsic (I): The next level up are six intrinsic dimensions of games, which are formed by the intersection of each different fundamental level: representation (art), roles (associations), complexity (intricacy), interactions (goal trees), coherence (theme integration), and interface (ergonomics).

Dynamic (D): The dynamic level includes four dimensions that directly shape the total experience. These are: Narratives (player-created arcs and drama and thematic realizations); Challenge (depth, complexity, types of thinking, heuristics); Immersion (how players are drawn into the world); and lastly Simulation (“realism”, theme fidelity, modeling).

Aesthetics (A): The top most level is about aesthetic experience and meanings. What is the culmination of the experience, what does the game mean to its player, what emotions or types of “fun” are had by players?
From gallery of Mezmorki

While the initial post laying out the Genomic Framework (aka FIDA) depicts the overall structure, I acknowledge there is plenty of detail to fill in when it comes to what types of things exist within each of these buckets. When we talk about player created narratives (for example), to what extent are these narratives a vital part of the experience (or not). What is the range for how theme and narratives, conceptually, can connect with a game’s mechanics? What types of relationships can be coded? How does all of this translate into “fun”?

Rethinking “Fun” as Experiential Motives

A central topic in the Dan Thurot interview was about the “problematic” nature of the word “fun” - which is to say that on it’s own (and as it is so casually and commonly used) it says almost nothing about the experience. More to the point, what one person finds fun may not be fun to another, and so one type of game with a certain flavor of fun might work well for some and not others.

Ultimately, the aesthetic level in the framework is about describing “the kinds of fun” or the total experience that a game provides to players. Moreover, for this framework to be useful, we should be able to identify a particular “type of fun” that a given game provides and be able to trace it back through the framework to understand how that type of fun was created and/or identify the factors contributing to it.

The MDA Framework identifies a number of types of aesthetics, “fun”, or experiences a game can create, and I happen to think it’s a pretty good list. I also like to think of these as “motives” or reasons why someone would seek out a particular type of game. I’ve tweaked the list and language from the MDA Framework and added to it a bit. My working set is as follows:

(1) Socialization - The game provides a context for social interactions. Provides ways of engaging with the psychologies and personalities of the players at the table. The game itself, like a pastime, may take a back seat to these player-centric interactions.

(2) Challenge - Games provide fun by giving us interesting problems to solve. They tax our mental faculties along spatial, logistical, or psychological lines (i.e. different modes of thinking). Problem solving, puzzle solving, etc.

(3) Discovery - Fun is provided by learning and understanding things about the game world. Exploring mysteries, seeing what’s around the corner, etc. Can even extend to discovering how mechanical systems work and what’s possible within the rules (for example “finding combo” in different arrangements of cards).

(4) Drama - Fun comes through the provision of narratives that are engaging to the player. Can be player-driven/created or designer controlled narratives. Chaos and the unexpected can drive unique dramas and situations that unfold. The feeling of “what happens next?”

(5) Immersion - Fun provided through a sense being transported into the game world. The presentation, interface, artwork, narratives, audio/visual queues, help maintain our suspension of disbelief and draw us into the fictionalized world. That our agency as players acting in the world has plausible causes and effects.

(6) Fantasy - Games tap into our fantasies and give us a means of acting them out or role-playing (albeit in an artificial format). “Fun” comes from being in a role we wouldn’t otherwise occupy. Often framed as power fantasies, but there are others too.

(7) Sensation - “Fun” is tactical or sensory in nature - that our nerve endings are positively stimulated by the physicality of the game or other sensory inputs and repetitions that are pleasurable.

(8) Expression - The game provides opportunities for creative expression and outlets for creative energy, through building/creating things in unique or novel ways that allow us to project our sense of identity, self, or capabilities.

(9) Competition - The game’s fun comes through its ability to provide a controlled environment for fair competition and determining which player has superior skills / abilities. The motive is dominating the competition.

(10) Learning/Reflection - The game provides insights and realizations that extend beyond the scope of the game and import ideas/knowledge/ideas that have real-world relevance - such as history, natural phenomena, art, philosophy, etc.

(11) Achievement - The game provides a clear sense of progress and achievement (even in the form of tangible rewards seen outside the game). Taps into our reward-seeking motivations, desire to complete things.

(12) Comfort - Fun is manifested through the game providing a comfortable space for our mind to rest - that it can allow us to enter a zen-like state of singular but low stress comfort.
It should go without saying that most games probably do a little bit of all of the above, but also emphasize a few in particular - depending on the style of game at hand.

As a tool for critique, teasing out what sort of “fun” a game provides helps us put the game in the context of other games that provide that same sort of fun, or help associate the game with a certain audience or set of preferences. As an aside, this approach also resonates with me when it comes to “designer intent,” which is to say that most games broadcast through their box design, artwork, or marketing what type of fun the designer intended. We can then critique games, perhaps in a less biased way, based on whether they achieved the design intent or not, rather than whether or not the game’s particular ‘fun’ connected with the critic.

It’s also worth reflecting, as a critic or designer or player, on what specifically motivates an individual to engage with certain games and how those motives bias their reactions. If there is anything my amature critic-self has learned over the years, it’s the importance of knowing your own biases and preferences and the biases and preferences of your fellow players, designers, and the critics you follow. Without understanding what each person means by “fun” its very difficult to have a deep and detailed conversation (or critique, or design discussion).

From gallery of Mezmorki

Modes of thinking diagram, a tool for understanding the relative emphasis of different kinds of thought required by a game.

Connecting the Genomic Framework to Taxonomy

Parallel to my thinking about the Genomic Framework, I’ve continued to work through my taxonomy and classification system for games, an endeavor which forces my hand and requires getting specific about terminology. While the Genomic Framework identifies a lot of buckets, the question then is: what are the sorts of things that actually go into those buckets and how do we assess them (particularly regarding the intrinsic or dynamic levels which are a bit fuzzier).

The “Genomic” part of the framework dovetails with game taxonomies. The initial purpose of the Game Genome Project was to “map” as best we could all of the traits and characteristics for games. Like genetics, we wanted to identify the traits (e.g. eye color) but also identify the range of expression (e.g. brown, blue, hazel, green, etc.) for that trait. The foundational levels are relatively easy, because we can look at the game’s discrete mechanics by category (e.g. how do players take actions) and broadly identify different action mechanics (e.g. action points, action drafting, role selection, and so on). The rules lay out the game format and structure and the victory conditions. We know the components, how many players are supported, etc. We can look at the “theme” in terms of its setting, scope, and subject matter (e.g. Star Wars, galactic-scale space battles, fighting for control of planets).

Conversely, the intrinsic and dynamic levels are harder to pin down. How do we assess how narratives are built in-game, or the impact that rule complexity and use of randomness impact strategic or tactical depth? How can we measure immersion or the simulation fidelity of the game?

What we found helpful was to frame the assessment around different experiential dimensions of the game. Evaluating these dimensions can be done by posing a series of questions, which can be answered on a 1-5 continuum scale (see the link for some working rubrics) but also really benefit from qualitative descriptions as well. These dimensions relate to the following:
Theming: How integrated are the theme and mechanics? Does the theme function as decoration or interface? Or do the game systems strive to model or simulate a “real” analogue? Include consideration of theme as micro vs. macro (per The Thoughtful Gamer).

Interaction: How much board-level interaction is there between players’ respective playing pieces and what is the nature of that interaction (direct, cutthroat, indirect, etc.)? Also, how much player-level interaction is there directly between players, at a psychological or communicative level?

Complexity: How complex are the game rules? A useful metric for this is how long does it take to teach someone how to play competently? How complex are the game’s underlying goal trees?

Depth: How deep is the gameplay and decision-making? What is the balance between strategic, versus tactical, versus optimization, versus mundane decisions? Are large skill discrepancies possible? What types of thinking are demanded? Are decisions “interesting”?

Randomness: How much system-level chaos, randomness, and uncertainty is present in the game? Sliding scale from zero (i.e. combinatorial games) to highly chaotic. Nature of randomness (input vs. output) can also be considered.
Certainly there can be more questions to ask. At a more comprehensive level, there could even be a question and answer rubric associated with each of the types of fun listed previously. But as a starting point, I’ve found the questions above to be effective at framing the broad parameters defining a game’s experience. An anecdote (suggesting we might be on the right track) is seeing how the above terms are often used as part of a game’s marketing or descriptive language to define the experience contained in the box, in an effort presumably to get it to the right audience.

Before we move on to the next section, let’s take stock of how these pieces are coming together:

Fundamental Level: Lexicons of game mechanisms, theme as setting/scope/subject matter, and other objective facets of the game define its operation at a fine grained level.

Intrinsic + Dynamic Level: Experiential dimensions allow us to assess key parameters of the game relating to things like depth, complexity, theming, randomness, and interactivity.

Aesthetic Level: We can describe the different motives (types of fun) and their relative importance/balance that a game provides in creating an overall experience.

Revisiting Schools of Design and Game Style Conventions

Board Game: Pandemic

Early in this article, a few cases where language was not mutually understood were shared (e.g. differing opinions on what was abstract or not, what was a wargame or not). These examples key into a much broader and longer running discussion about Schools of Design (e.g. Eurogame, Ameritrash, Abstract, Wargame, and so on) and whether or not these are even useful or relevant means of classification. Moreover, what does the Genomic Framework and everything discussed above have to do with it?

Here’s my thesis statement: A School of Design, as well as more narrowly defined game “styles,” are characterized based on typical conventions that connect foundational elements of the game to its overall experience.

That’s a bit of a mouthful. But the idea is that we can take “Eurogame” as design school and look at each of the levels in the framework and make some generalizations about how the “typical” eurogame operates. At the experiential level, the focus of most is around Challenge (problem solving, navigating complexity), Discovery (fetishization of learning the rulesets and their nuances) and Competition (fair playing, usually designer controlled-environment). This is different from an Ameritrash game, which will emphasize Drama (the unexpected creating excitement), Immersion (story-telling, artwork, fidelity to setting), and Fantasy (players as agents directly in the world).

When it comes to dynamics and the intrinsic level in the framework, we can identify the mix (think of a graphic equalizer) that a typical eurogame has that’s distinct from other design schools. The theming is usually pretty thin and functions mostly as decoration. The interactions tend to be heavily focused on board-level play (as opposed to player-to-player), and even there tend to be indirect or parallel running interactions (a race with blocking as opposed to all out attacking). The nature of limited-interactions usually forces the designs to be more complex in order to provide a desired level of depth. Randomness on the back-end is usually not desired, and whatever randomness there is wants to be highly mitigatable (which feeds back into increased complexity). The experiential desire for “competition” likewise feeds into the complexity, which is why so many games have entire card drafting mini-games, before the game even starts, just to minimize first-turn advantage and luck of the draw.

When you consider the type of experience that a eurogame desires, and the dynamics necessary to get you there, it steers the foundational elements of the game towards certain things. Mechanics feed into creating engine building games, which include a large swath of tableau builders, worker placement games, drafting and deck building games. Turn structures are carefully managed. The types of thinking required are usually focused around logistics (not spatial planning or psychology). The componentry is (or rather traditionally was) somewhat abstract to keep the functionality high and the board state easy to read (and the theme doesn’t really matter as much).

The power of all of this is that we can start to identify genres or styles of games (or even broader design schools) based on the conventions that they typically follow. Qwertymartin, some years ago, introduced me to Wittgenstein’s Family Resemblance idea, which is immensely helpful in these conversations. I’ve used the word “typically” throughout this, because the idea is that rather than trying to find the one perfect definition for a style of game or design school, we instead list the criteria that are commonly cited, and recognize that any given game need only express a majority of those criteria (not all of them) to be a likely member of the group.

At this point in the evolution of our hobby, I think the Schools of Design concept remains useful as a lens through which we can critique games and understand their historical context, genesis, or influences. But I also fully recognize that we’re increasingly in an era of hybridization of forms, and that the design schools specifically as a “classification” tool may be less relevant. Problems with practical usage is also compounded because certain design school terms (e.g. German Family Games) have fallen out of common usage and have been subsumed by others (e.g. Eurogame). But as critics trying to provide greater insight in our analysis, these distinctions remain useful I feel.

Lately, I’ve been drawn more towards a discussion and identification of subtler “styles” of games. Much like design schools, these can be described by listing typical characteristics at the different levels in the framework. In trying to keep up with commonly used terms, browsing the recommendation forum on BGG provides a lot of insight. A common request to ask for a certain mechanical genre of game (e.g. worker placement) coupled with a “weight” (e.g. lightweight). So someone might say, I’m looking for a lightweight worker placement game. But these style (and game requests) can intersect at other levels in the framework too. You might see requests for a “rich thematic narrative” game. During the classification work I spent a lot of time reading the recommendation forum and aligning that with an emerging understanding of styles of games. I ended up with the following that you can see HERE

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

From gallery of Mezmorki

This article has gone on much longer than intended! Thanks for bearing with me as I’ve rambled through all of this.

Long story short, the Genomic Framework and classification/taxonomy work I’ve engaged in is all about building language and some consistency in language. It’s also about building a greater understanding of how games work, and providing tools for how one can look at a game’s mechanics or its overall experience and delve into a discussion of dynamics. Put bluntly, to have more precise words to describe the how and why of a game.

And this is useful for everyone in the hobby. As a critic, language lets us advance our understanding of games and advocate for designs that create new types of experiences or that engage with novel ideas or dynamics. I also think many critics struggle to rectify (or communicate) their personal tastes and preferences relative to a game they are discussing. There is pressure from the audience at large to “be objective”, which in part results in so much content focused merely on rule and gameplay overviews. Embracing more nuanced language and being upfront with our preferences would, paradoxically perhaps, give more freedom to critics to discuss the things that really matter in playing games: the types of dynamics and experiences they create.

As designers and publishers, a common language enables us to talk about how a given design lives up to its intended experience, and answer basic questions like “is this game providing the right sort of fun?” And as players, we can better talk about our experiences and preferences, and more easily find games that align with our tastes or discuss games more broadly from an informed perspective.

If you’ve made it to the end and are cursing my name for writing something so long, feel free to blame to The Thoughtful Gamer and Dan Thurot!

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