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Making compelling narratives in board games using the three-act structure

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I love story arcs and I love board games. The craft of storytelling is ancient and thus experience is plentiful on what makes stories work - some of it can even be condensed into simple structure rules. Board games that tell stories however are a recent phenomenon, and not nearly as mature, but if there’s one thing that fits well in board games, then it’s rules and structure, and so it seems natural to take a look at the rules of storytelling and see if they can be converted to board game rules.

We’ve already been down this road once before on this blog (The 3P-Principle - or what the craft of storytelling can teach us about solitaire game design) and today we’ll take further steps by looking at the classic three-act structure.

The three-act structure

The three-act structure is a simple way of structuring stories that over millennia has been shown to help create compelling stories. In this structure a story is split into… yes, you guessed it: Three acts . I’ll give a brief explanation of the structure and I’ll use the 2011 Conan the Barbarian movie as an example. This isn’t because it’s a good movie (it’s not), but because it follows the three-act structure, and because I don’t think it’ll ruin much for anyone if I spoil its overall plot .

1 Act I - The Setup: This is where the characters and world of the story are introduced, and the tone of the storytelling is set. Act I ends with Plot Point I – a pivotal event that changes the situation of the protagonist irrevocably, sets her on her path, and raises the Fundamental Question of the story, which will be answered during Act III.

In Conan the Barbarian, we start out seeing Conan being born during a battle and we follow his first years. This shows us the world and type of characters, and sets the tone of the story well.

The first act comes to an abrupt end, when the forces of the evil warlord Khalar Zym razes Conan’s village and leaves Conan with the choice of saving himself or trying to save his father. This is Plot Point I, which destroys Conan’s world, sets him on the path of vengeance that defines the rest of the movie, and raises the fundamental question of the story: Will Conan get his revenge on Khalar Zym?

2 Act II – Confrontation: This is the main part of the story in which the protagonist confronts a series of challenges. The stakes rise and often it turns out that she lacks what it takes to overcome the final challenge and thus Act II sees her acquiring these skills or allies who can help. This development of the protagonist is called the Character Arc.

Act II ends with Plot Point II, a dramatic event that thrusts the protagonist into the climax. It’s clear here that the stakes are very high.

In Act II of Conan the Barbarian we follow Conan around the world. He grows up, acquires better combat skills, hunts for Khalar Zym, and faces several challenges posed by the henchmen of Khalar Zym. Along the way Conan also picks up some allies.

Plot Point II happens as Conan’s ally Tamara is captured by Khalar Zym. Performing a ritual where Tamara’s soul is replaced by Khalar Zym’s dead wife is the last step in the process that will make him all-powerful and thus the stakes are as high as they can get. The scene is now set for the Climax.

3 Act III – Resolution: This is it. The Climax of the story. We get the answer to the Fundamental Question. Often we’ll also get a short ending where lose ends are tied up and we get a glimpse of what’ll happen to the protagonist and her allies afterwards.

Our old reliable friend Conan doesn’t let us down in following the structure. He faces off against Khalar Zym to save the world and the damsel in an epic showdown, and after the evil warlord is slain, we get a glimpse of Conan and Tamara parting ways. Both go to their own birthplace, and in Conan’s case we see him telling the memory of his father that his death has been avenged.

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Three-act structures in board games

OK, now that we know what a three-act structure is, let’s try to see whether we can find the structure in solitaire board games.

I’ve spend a lot of time playing games from the States of Siege series the past few months, so I’ll start out by considering a couple of them.

In We Must Tell the Emperor you play the Japanese in Word War II. The game contains a set of event cards that controls the narrative of the game and it’s divided into three decks. You play through these three decks one by one, and each deck always starts with the same card (and deck one always ends with a specific card). This neatly separates the game into three acts.

The first deck starts out with Pearl Harbor, whose mere name will most likely invoke powerful mental imagery in the player, and thus is not only a good place to start from a historic point of view, but also because it’s powerful. It also serves as the event that awakens the main antagonist of the game: The Americans. At this point, the Japanese, who you as the player control, are on top. So we start while all is well, though we see the enemy stirring, which foreshadows the attack that’s about to arise and make the happy days come to an end.

Then WHAM! The Battle of Midway smacks you into a harsher reality where the enemy shows its power and presents a clear threat to you. The world of the Japanese military is irrevocably changed. This is the Plot Point I, which signals the transition to Act II. What initially looked like Japanese supremacy turns out to be a fight for survival and the Fundamental Question becomes: Will the Japanese survive?

Board Game: We Must Tell the Emperor

Image Credit: Rick Thompson. We Must Tell the Emperor. Plot Point I, The Battle of Midway, ends Act I.

You spend the second act facing challenge after challenge fighting to hang on to what you’ve got, leading up to the Plot Point II, which doesn’t really happen in the game, because while the game has followed the classical three-act structure well so far the end deviates. It’s one drawn out struggle for survival while gradually losing ground instead of a single climax. This, however is not meant as a critique of We Must Tell the Emperor, since designer Steve Carey quite reasonably chose to follow history, which didn’t have one final showdown where the Japanese overcame their enemies, and Steve’s goal was clearly to convey history to us.

Furthermore it’s not only that history dictated a drawn out ending instead of an epic showdown, it’s actually an almost inescapable feature of the States of Siege engine that we’ll get hanging on by the nails survival stories, not showdowns. Of the 11 States of Siege games I’ve tried I’d say that only one of them has changed this feature: Mound Builders.

States of Showdown

Mound Builders does this by adding in Spanish Conquistadors who attack your Native American empire, during the final part of the game. They attack in two waves, and the attacks are foreshadow by an event card that places them on the map and serves as Plot Point II. The attacks of the Spanish follows somewhat different rules than those of your other enemies: They’re stronger, and they will continue to attack until they’re stopped. If you stop both of their attack waves you immediately win the game. These features make them stand out in your mind and marks their attack as something special and more dangerous, and create a nice Climax for the game.

So in this way Mound Builders adds a “true” Act III to the States of Siege formula, and I think that from a narrative perspective it’s a very good addition.

As mentioned Mound Builders has special rules for the Spanish, which helps make Act III feel climatic. The game goes much further than this though, and in general changes rules from one act to another. One example of this is Diplomacy.

You’ll spend Act I expanding your empire through diplomacy. In Act II this option disappears, but you can still use diplomacy to negotiate temporary peace. Finally in Act III there’s no such thing as diplomacy. These rule changes help make each act feel distinct and supports the feel of each of them, and reinforces the three-act structure.

Instead of having the rule changes for the Acts in the rulebook another option is going the way of Lord of the Rings LCG, which has a special mini deck of cards for each scenario. You turn over one of these cards per Act and it contains some flavor text and very often a special rule that’s active during this Act. This works out as a simple and effective way of enforcing a set of distinct acts on the narrative of the game

Board Game: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game – Khazad-dûm

Image credit Kris Vanhoyland. A scenario card in Lord of the Rings LCG, which defines a scene in the game.

Skipping Act I

On the surface the game Friday seems to have a four act structure, because it has three “challenge” phases plus a final showdown with two pirate crews. I’d argue though that in reality the first three phases all belong to the same Act, since the only difference between them is that the difficulty of the challenges are cranked up from one phase to the next.

So if we accept this idea we get an Act II that consists of the player overcoming challenge after challenge and apart from overcoming challenges the players goal is improving his deck, which represents his skills and thus we have an explicit implementation of the Character Arc. Thus Friday’s structure is a good fit for Act II and Act III of the three-act structure, though it lacks a Plot Point II.

Now if I think that this game has only two acts, why do I then talk about it in a post about the three-act structure? That’s because I actually don’t think that Friday is a two acter – I actually think that it’s a three-acter with Act I being the implicit story that went before it – i.e. Robinson Crusoe going on a voyage and Plot Point I being the ship wreck and making it to the island.

In stories Act I is often quiet with little danger, which is fine in a story that you read once, but in a game that you’ll play over and over it could get boring, and thus it makes sense to skip this Act. One way of avoiding the quietness of Act I leading to player boredom is to allow the player to build something during this act, because that appeals to a lot of people. This is the approach taken by Mound Builders, where you build up your empire during Act I.

So, there can be an advantage to skipping Act I in board games, but there’s also advantages of keeping it in – it makes the narrative of the three-act structure stronger because it makes the player more emotionally invested. While defending in Mound Builders I felt like defending my empire, not someone else’s empire (i.e. the game designer’s), because I had actually built the empire, and it has the added advantage that it replaces a longwinded setup with interesting gameplay.

It seems to me that the most common approach in board games is to be skipping Act I, though we could of course take the title of Act I, “The Setup”, literally and decide that setting up the game is Act I .

Boss Monsters

Both Mound Builders and Friday have their Climax implemented by an enemy that’s much stronger than any that has come before – i.e. a boss monster, and having a boss monster as the Climax is actually quite common in solitaire games. Goblins vs. Zombies has it, Witch of Salem has it, and Darkest Night has it.

Board Game: Goblins vs Zombies

Image credit: Kris Ardianto. Boss Monsters in Goblins vs. Zombies.

There’s a reason that the boss monster mechanic has been so widespread, particularly in videogames, and that reason is quite simply that it works. It makes the end feel extra dangerous and special – it feels like a climax and thus it hooks into the same psychological mechanics that the three-act structure does.

Plot Points

As mentioned above We Must Tell the Emperor has a Plot Point I and Mound Builders has both a Plot Point I and II. In both these games the Plot Points are very effective in conveying the narrative of the game and making it exciting, but despite this it seems to me that fairly few games has explicit Plot Points, which I think is a pity.

The game, Hostage Negotiator is very explicit about having a Plot Point II. The last event card in the game is taken from a special deck of cards called “pivotal events”, which generally have more extreme effects than the other event cards.

Board Game: Hostage Negotiator

Image credit: Tracy Baker. Hostage Negotiator use special event cards called “pivotal events” to act as Plot Point II in the game’s narrative.

When a game of Hostage Negotiator goes by the book (it often, but not always, does this), then it’s a poster child for how well the Act II -> Plot Point II -> Act III part of the three-act structure works to create exciting narratives. You spend Act II getting ready for the showdown, while the stakes rise. Then the pivotal event sets the scene for the Climax in Act III, which is a single turn of double length, where you fire off everything that you’ve built up during the main part of the game. This double length and using everything you’ve got, while the outcome of game hangs in the balance works very well to mark the last turn as a climax.

Ask yourself…

In my opinion many game designers hasn’t realized how powerful the three-act structure can be, and thus we get games that only has Act II, e.g. Astra Titanus, Dungeon Roll, and Castle Panic. The last of these even has boss monsters, but they can show up at any time during the game, and it most often ends by petering out a turn or two after the draw pile runs out, instead of ending with a bang.

So when designing a game try to ask yourself, can I add
1 an Act I that makes the player more invested in the characters and game world?
2 a Climax that ends the game? Perhaps with the normal rules of the game tweaked a bit?
3 Plot Points I and II?

You may not be able to do these things in your game, but if you can you’ll get an easy way to hook into a structure that has over millennia has been shown to hook into the human psyche and create narratives that resonate with us.
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