Board games that tell stories

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Strip, Strip, Stripping Away

Strip, Strip, Stripping Away

Michiel Hendriks

After reading Ignacy’s fun blog post on game design and specifically the trashing or culling of elements that aren’t necessary, I got to thinking (something I am not in the habit of doing, obviously ). In the comments, of course, someone (Erik Burigo) had to refer to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s popular phrase, “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. And I got to thinking even more… (yeah, I know, crazy).

Stripping away layer after layer until you reach the essential core of something, in this case a game. If you visit the game design forums here on BGG, you’ll hear this ‘thought’ extolled as a virtue. But is it really all it has been hyped up to be? For board games, anyway? I am not so sure. Of course, you do not create a ‘lean, mean, fighting machine’ by adding layer after layer of chrome, theme, complexity, or what have you. But stripping until you can strip no longer and finding the essence of something automatically means you end up with something that no longer tells a story, that no longer presents a theme, that no longer offers possibilities.

After reading Oliver Kiley's blog post on What makes a Euro a Euro I figured that perhaps that is what is happening to a lot of Euros nowadays – they are being stripped down to the essentials of ‘multiple paths to victory through resource trading for VPs in numerous different ways, but whatever you do, you get points’. Or, as BGG user selwyth put it there, “…in Eurogames, I can get a VP for scratching my nose.” What remains of the story? Sadly, in my opinion, not enough, so for me, games are indeed about the story you are experiencing (or telling), the story that unfolds. As a game designer I feel I am responsible for bringing a story to life, for making sure that you do not think, okay, I’m a XXX (pick whatever you’re doing in a game), and in real life I would just do YYY, but here I am limited to doing ZZZ. No, if you would solve a situation in real life (in that game environment of course) and it is not possible in the game, the game is teetering on the edge of failure, in my opinion.

Of course, there is a lot more stripping to do than just theme, and story – there are also overly complex rules, or gimmicky additions that add stuff that does not really need to be in the game. Game designers (myself certainly included) often struggle with such points, as they have envisioned their game in a certain way, and this aspect is an important part of the story they want to tell, or the rule is important to make the game work. They think. But is it? An objective yet professional look at the game by someone other than the designer should give insight into this point. As an example, I just wrote my a review on a new game, Dark Empire: Revolution, in which a few (minor) rules didn’t seem necessary and added a layer of complexity that my group felt to be unnecessary. Are they unnecessary? Well, more people would have to weigh in on that point, of course, but it is a good example of something that could potentially be stripped away.

In Ignacy’s blog post, though, what is funny when you reread it is that he was never really stripping (or trashing) to reach the bare bones, but simply to improve the game design. As you can read, the theme is indeed affected, and therefore replacements are found, new game ideas that fill the hole that was left after the trashing. Indeed, I would say it isn’t trashing or stripping at all, what he was doing, but replacing, improving, emulating.

How about my own experience with Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy?, you might ask. Well, there were numerous instances, of course, in which I myself had to ‘trash’ what I initially thought was a great idea. I would therefore like to end my blog post with three examples.

Begin (at) the Begin
(a.k.a. ‘Let’s begin again’)

When I first brought the game home from work, where I had created it (which is a story for another day), my wife and I sat down to play a game. She quickly thought the concept and the game were interesting, and we settled in for a fun game. At the end of the first round, in which we both had gotten our matriarch/patriarch married, we turned over an event (the deck of event cards that Ignacy trashed): “Draw of the New World: A couple in each family leaves for the New World. Receive 3 VP for their accomplishments there.”

We looked at each other and started to laugh. That was it! We only had one couple! Game over. We had no family members left anymore. The game was totally broken! On the spot I created a Generation 2 and 3 event deck to deal with this issue – this card obviously fit better at a later stage in the game…

From gallery of Mr Mjeh

Thematic Interaction: Arranged Marriages between Players

For thematic interaction I had two great ideas, the first of which was arranged marriages between player families. Here you could marry off one of your family members to one of the other player’s family members. This would be negotiated and there’d be a VP bonus for both, the more famous family getting 1VP at the end of each generation, and the less powerful family 3 VP at the end of each generation. However, placement (the table is full enough with a family tree in front of you) and complexity led me to remove this aspect fairly early on. It is still potentially an option for the future, as the idea is thematically logical – if you want to marry into important/powerful families, then why not try to get into your rival’s family or profit from how well they’re doing?

Thematic Interaction: Illegitimate Children

Illegitimate children weren’t literally illegitimate, but rumored to be illegitimate. In those days nobility/royalty were infamous for their many illegitimate children, but who could really prove they were illegitimate? Through interaction you could use a reporter to spread rumors that one of another player’s children was illegitimate. The reporter would then investigate and would then find either an illegitimate child, or find out that the child was in fact legitimate. Again, this idea was great, but boy, was it overly complex. Just explaining how it worked, and making sure it worked well wasn’t something I ever really managed to pull off. In the bin it went.
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