I've commented before that many successful games get players to imbue their pieces with more meaning than they hold within the rules. If this were not so important then I imagine that abstracts would be the most popular genre of gaming.
Today I wanted to comment on five games that had successfully got me and/or my friends to imbue pieces with personality, hopes and desires above and beyond the mechanical effects of the pieces. Alongside a little look at how that happened.
First up is Risk Legacy, I've not played this in the last few weeks but definitely want to organise another game! I was reminded of this earlier via a reference to Fort Adelade, which was founded after a single soldier named Adelade prevented an invasion by a much larger force singlehandedly. One of my housemates took to naming their soldiers, but only when they were hopelessly outgunned, possibly in an attempt to draw on the power of names to make them into a main character. Whenever there are a large number of randomisers used in succession an unlikely result with crop up sooner or later and when it does humans are less inclined to blame the bell curve than to try to put some agency into it. Risk Legacy capitalises on and enhances this instinct by letting players name cities and continents, encouraging them to develop histories and personalities that go beyond the game.
Descent (specifically we were playing a Road to Legend campaign) pulls a similar trick, in the way that the enemy characters are treated. Over the course of a game the heroes are going to wade through piles of enemies and roll piles of dice so sooner or later something unlikely will happen and from this personalities are born. The odd thing about this is how effective they are at getting both sides to adapt their behaviour around the key figure. The heroes are willing to give up a tactical advantage to corner and kill a particularly hated razorwing, while the overlord squanders traps that might better have been used elsewhere. Ultimately I think this sort of play emerges because both sides are engaged in the pursuit of fun rather than of victory, so once something has been imbued with that spark of life it becomes a more important game element.
It's not me talking about games I like until I mention Space Alert, though in this case it pulls an extremely odd trick. The expansion offers players a character sheet to plot their career and the achievements that they obtain over the course of it. To all intents and purposes this character is you; they're entirely defined by the decisions that you make flying the ship and by the things that you achieve by playing the game. It shouldn't be possible to imbue these characters with anything more than the players, yet I hear comments like "My guy obviously doesn't care anymore, five perfect missions, but since consenting to be cloned he's died half a dozen times in a row."
This might prove a controversial choice, since it's often slated for its weak theme, but I've spotted a surprising amount of investment in Dominion. Some of the people that I play with aren't satisfied until they've come up with an "In world" explanation for the cards that they play and the sort of nation that they're running. For this type of player a moat is effective against witches because they're vampire-witches who can't cross running water. A nation that remodels an estate into a thief is turfing people out of their homes to become vagabonds. Everyone still plays their best game and some of the explanations become outrageous, but a game of Dominion could serve as a world building exercise in the right hands.
It's the last day of the 404 kickstarter so I'm contractually obliged to bring it up. The video in this update shows playtesters doing impressions of the humans on the ship, defining them on a few random card draws (leading to a repeated failure to close a door.) I could probably write a whole post on the things that I did to try to make 404 encourage this sort of behaviour, but I can't be certain which of them actually worked I think that the level of emergent properties in the environment was a big help, as simple decision making processes can produce quite diverse results.
I'm not sure that these games have that much in common, as 'imbued pieces' is an aspect of game design that can be reached by many different paths. I'd like to highlight what a difference the degree to which players see the pieces as more than abstract mathematics makes to their enjoyment of the game and to encourage everyone, players and designers, to help that to happen as often as possible