Prophet's Progress: A Game Development Blog

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Defeating Groupthink: What's a Board Game Supposed to Be?

Joseph Arthur Ellis
United States
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Certain expectations come with the words "board game." Some of those expectations are essential to the idea of a "game": structure, rules, a beginning, an ending, turns, goals, winners, and losers.

Most of us, at some point in the past, saw non-essential mechanics as essential to what a board game is. Take, for example, the "roll and move" mechanic. That's the idea that you have a pawn or two or three that represent you on the board, and the meat of your turn is rolling a die or drawing/playing a card or flicking a spinner which determines how far your pawns move along the board.

Sometimes these games are a kind of race (Sorry!, Trouble, etc). At least the "roll and move" mechanic makes sense for those. Other popular games, like Trivial Pursuit (and most trivia games), Monopoly, Life, etc., use the roll and move mechanic, but for no good reason other than the fact that people are used to it. For all those games, we could come up with a way better mechanic to improve the game in less than five minutes, but the mechanic keeps getting used because people expect that mechanic when they play a new game.

What was mind blowing about discovering hobby board games was that it obliterated the requirement for a "roll and move" mechanic and opened up a new world for us in gaming. The entire structure of a game could be oriented around something so different than roll and move that it changed our idea of what a board game is supposed to be.

In the strategy world of thematic/war/euro games, we have ended up with a whole new set of mechanics to have fun with. Deck building, role selection, worker placement, various player/unit powers, area majority, etc. Some great, fun new games stick with those newer mechanics and don't branch out too much. But my favorite games to learn about are those that stretch our expectations further than ever when it comes to mechanics. Here's some of the games that has stretched my expectations for what a board game is the most:

1 Acquire: In Acquire, there is no control or player pieces on the board. Instead each player is a disinterested investor. Once you play a tile, your association with that tile is over. I love teaching this game and seeing the light go on for new players a few turns in, when they suddenly realize the board is a totally collaborative effort, and that no one player has greater stake what is forming than any other.

2 Imperial: Not a game I'm in love with, but I have to admit its separation between players and turns is inspiring. Instead of the players taking turns, the nations take turns, in order, and whoever controls each nation controls the nation's actions. The nations even have their own cache of money separate from the players.

3 Neuland: This is a genius game of logistics in which each player is trying to produce raw materials, convert them into refined goods, and finally convert those refined goods into victory points. The map and all the buildings (which do the goods conversions) are all shared, though, so the logistical puzzle tangles as your aims and the other players' aims come into conflict in the shared space.

4 Dominion: I'm a bit sick of playing this game, but I have to admit it blew my mind a little bit to realize the gold I was buying didn't represent one piece of gold, but an INCOME of 1 gold every time I went through my deck.

I want any game I design to stretch the players' expectations for what board games are supposed to be, like all these games do. The idea I'm hooked on at the moment has to do with player pieces. Why is it that at the beginning of so many games, we each choose a color and all the pieces of that color are mine and mine alone forever (or we each get a player mat the other players can't touch)? It's seems arbitrary to me.

I'd like to create a game where 95% of the pieces on the board are neutral--not belonging to any player--and my control and influence over them is determined situationally, by position and cards and whatever else at that moment in the game.

My chosen theme is religion. Each player is a prophet for a very real god, and the players vie for control over armies and villages and kingdoms. All the armies and villages and farms and forests and whatever else are neutral; they don't belong to any player. But a very few pieces--idols--do belong to certain players and give those players some control over what happens in the idols' vicinities. And that can change at any moment! Players are propping up and supporting the kingdoms, but they can suck the life out of them as well, to benefit their particular god.

This idea first emerged in my brain a year and a half ago. Progress has been slow since then, with a couple prototypes that fell flat immediately. But I feel like I'm finally making progress, so I'd like to chronicle it on this blog.

The next couple weeks, I'll catch you up on the history of the game's development so far. From that point on, I'll keep you updated with progress as it happens.

I hope this blog can also be a forum for game design and game theory. For anyone reading this, I ask anyone who happens to read this blog post to comment below on this question: Which board games have stretched your expectations for what a board game is the farthest? And, if you're working on a game design, what innovative mechanics are inspiring you to keep at it?

Thanks for reading. I'll dive more into my game idea tomorrow.
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