Thematic Solitaires for the Spare Time Challenged

A blog about solitaire games and how to design them. I'm your host, Morten, co-designer of solo modes for games such as Scythe, Gaia Project and Viticulture.
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Using physicality and drooling dogs to create player engagement

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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When storytelling really works and I’m pulled into the story I don’t notice the mechanics of the storytelling that achieves this. The minute I do notice them I’m pulled out of the world of the story and my mind becomes occupied by the craft of storytelling itself. Thinking about pacing, Plot Point I+II, “show, don’t tell”, “make it worse”, etc. make the artifice stand out and thus is quite effective in killing the suspension of disbelief. It’s like knowing how a magic trick is pulled off – it removes the magic.

This observation unfortunately also tells us that getting storytelling to work in board games is hard, because you can’t make the player not notice the mechanics – since he’s the one that have to perform them manually with painstaking adherence.

Inspired by something as unlikely as drooling dogs, it occurred to me that maybe we can turn the tables on this problem and actually enhance the narrative arc of a board game by embracing its physicality.

Drooling dogs

Back in the days Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov did some interesting experiments on dogs. Over a period, he would ring a bell just before feeding the dogs, at the end of that period he found that simply ringing the bell without presenting any food would make the dogs salivate. This is called a conditioned response.

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Image credit: TorqueoZ

Since a solitaire board gamer is guaranteed to be carrying out specific physical actions again and again it occurred to me that maybe this could be used to condition the player to specific reactions that would support the narrative arc of a board game’s story.

So I’m suggesting that we start treating solo players like dogs .

Use Pavlovian conditioning to enhance the Plot Points

In my post on using the three-act structure of classical storytelling I talked about explicitly dividing a game into three acts and having trigger events called Plot Point I and Plot Point II signal the change in the narrative from one act to the next.

My thesis in this post is that if we mark these two points in a game’s narrative, we can condition a player who plays the game repeatedly to change mental state suitable to the upcoming act when performing specific physical actions.

Let me try to illustrate the idea with a couple of examples.

Changing decks as a Pavlovian trigger

In the game We Must Tell the Emperor a set of event cards control the game’s narrative of the rise and fall of the Japanese empire in the Pacific Theater of World War II. This set of event cards are split into three separate decks, one for each act of the narrative.

Now the designer could easily have made it so that the player should shuffle all three decks one by one during setup and stack them on top of each other, but he didn’t do that. Instead, the player is instructed to shuffle only the first deck and place that on the board, and not shuffle and add the next deck until the first deck is exhausted.

From a game mechanic point of view there’s no difference between these two ways of doing it, but setting it all up at once would not give a physical and visual trigger of adding and shuffling each deck when needed. By making it so explicit, it become clears to you that you now enter a new phase of the game, where things are going to change. After playing We Must Tell the Emperor a few times you’ll be conditioned like one of Pavlov’s dogs. The physical act of readying the next deck will subconsciously change your mental state to suit the second act.

Adding components as a Pavlovian trigger

Mound Builders is another three act game that has a physical trigger. Once the first act ends you place five enemy armies on the board. Until then the game has been one of peaceful diplomacy, so placing the armies on the board not only stand out as a physical action it also psychologically signals that the days of peace are over.

Again, at Plot Point II a sixth army is placed on the board – this one nastier than the previous ones, and you end up being conditioned to start fearing the final showdown with the “boss monster”, once it’s placed.

It should be clear that many different physical actions could be used as a Pavlovian trigger, but it’s crucial that the trigger stand out from the other physical actions the player must take during the game. Pavlov’s conditioning wouldn’t have worked if he’d also been ringing bells when doing other things than feeding the dogs.

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My point here is very similar to one of the points I made in a previous post: Making a game feel tense through emotional investment, where I argued that in some cases a game can be designed in two different ways that are mechanically equivalent, while at the same time being quite different from a psychological perspective. In that post I argued that having direct physical representation of the player’s forces/resources in particular and everything else in general would increase the player’s emotional engagement compared to a game where these were represented in an abstract manner.

Similarly, with the card decks in We Must Tell the Emperor, where the three separate decks could be handled in two ways that were mechanically equivalent, but had significant psychological differences in triggering a response in the player.

A third example I’ve used was from my own small PnP game Endless Nightmare that during development was changed from having a track for showing the progress of the player within a scene and another track representing the distance to “The Shadow” (a monster hunting the player) to having one track with a marker representing the player and one representing The Shadow.

These two ways of doing things were mechanically equivalent, but the second was a more direct representation, where the physical locations of the player and Shadow tokens corresponded to their “real” physical placements. Humans don’t see things in terms of progress through a scene and a distance between two entities. Instead, they see the entities at specific positions in space. Thus, the second way of doing it worked much better psychologically.

In all three cases we’re using the physicality of the board game to create a specific psychological effect, and I suggest that game designer’s might be able to improve their designs by thinking about such effects, even though they seem to have no mechanical function.

Am I making sense

This post is highly hypothetical without much in the way of supporting evidence, and Jake Staines has already provided good counterpoint arguments to my suggestion of making the act changes very explicit, so I’d love to hear your opinion, and whether you’ve felt physicality effects work in games.
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