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Toy Factor, Realism, and Style: A Musing on Game Components

Joe Aubrey
United States
St. Louis
Missouri
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I don't like realistic resources.

Don't get me wrong, I love upgrading my games. First, I believe a well-organized game is easier to get off the shelf. This may be obvious to some. But I'm here to talk about components, not organization.

Good components have two main attributes. Sometimes components with these attributes come with the base game, sometimes they're upgrades. These two attributes are:

1. Components that engage the players with aesthetic and tactile satisfaction:

Examples:
Board Game: Splendor
Think about the satisfaction gained by stacking Splendor chips.

Board Game Accessory: Scythe: Metal Coins
The same for hearing the clink of your metal coins in Scythe, Viticulture, Raiders of the North Sea and countless others.

Board Game: Nusfjord
And passing around the little fish in Nusfjord is way more satisfying than throwing around cardboard chits.


2. Components that spark the imagination of players:
The easiest way for me to demonstrate the "sweet spot" is with the different editions of one game: Agricola. In the beginning, Agricola came with large round disks for workers and smaller round disks for resources. All color coded. In Agricola: Revised Edition the workers became specifically shaped meeples! And those resources? Gloriously shaped representations of those resources.
Board Game: Agricola
VS.
Board Game: Agricola (Revised Edition)

So what's the problem? This is all seems pretty obvious.

The problem is this atrocity: (placed under a spoiler tag for the faint of heart)
Spoiler (click to reveal)
Agricola branded painted miniatures?!?!
From gallery of JoeAubrey

Wilhem Scream!!


All Games Are Abstractions
Subtitle: Stick with me. I'm gonna start at the beginning, but I promise I'll get somewhere.

All games include representations of an action that might happen in the setting of that game. Placing a worker in Agricola represents doing that action. You are not doing that action, the component isn't doing the action, the whole enterprise is an abstraction of an abstraction. It's an idea within an idea of doing that action, which happens to add up to a neat little package we call a game.

Running with that thought, any game component that can get you into the mood/spirit/world of the game, especially when demonstrating your agency in that game-space is great for player engagement. Upgrading Agricola's
Board Game: Agricola (Revised Edition)
soulless action-taking round disks to human shaped meeples gets us closer to putting the player into the game-space of family-centered subsistence farming. Likewise with the shaped, wooden resources.

But how far is too far? Making players plant seeds and wait for their family to starve in real life is too far. This type of literal realism is absurd, of course, but I'm also talking about much broader attempts at realism. The point of this essay is this: component designers should never take a game's "abstraction of an abstraction" and shoehorn "realism" into the equation.

We will never remove the fact that the game is merely a system of rules cobbled together that, for some weird trick of the human mind, ends up a fun activity. Changing Agricola's meeples to painted plastic figurines does not add to the realism, and for me, it actually distracts from the spirit of the game and forces the attempted imaginative spark to take a hard look in the mirror and see the endless depths of meaningless abstractions.

There is a line between immersion and distraction. Let's use 3D movies as an analogy. I have never seen a "2D" movie and thought even one time "I'm viewing this movie in two dimensions." My brain sees the movie as it would real life, imagining everything with height, width, AND depth. But if I'm viewing a movie in 3D, I will very often be forced to note: "This is a 3D movie," which by the very nature of the comment, removes me from the immersion.

A game I love, Scythe, is a prime "realism" offender. It comes with amazing abstract representation of wooden resources. But you could upgrade to the Scythe branded realistic resources. From one perspective,
 
they look amazing, but I would say the "realism" detracts from the game experience. Upgrading a wooden representation of a barrel of oil to a painted, molded single barrel of oil makes me think, "I have one barrel of oil!" Which is exciting until I realize it's not actually one barrel of oil; it represents the fact that I have an undetermined amount (but definitely more than one barrel) of oil for use in the game.

And more questions arise: If they're so realistic, why are all the bags of grain identically shaped? How do you make a mech out of just three iron bars? All this wood was cut from the same age of tree, remarkable! I'm being a bit dramatic, but you get my point.

This "realism" brings me further from the intended abstraction. I want to pretend all the players are generals in a war room pushing troops around a map with long sticks. Generals don't need realistic resources. They're too busy planning the fate of the world to worry about bling!
From gallery of JoeAubrey
Comic by Kate Beaton.


The Toy Factor and My Own Preferences

Many board game upgrades make the game closer to a "toy." We haven't quite gotten to Agricola Branded Action Figures, but painted miniatures are pretty close. I'm not going to debate the difference between a toy and a game, nor am I going to say where exactly that Venn diagram overlaps. It's an amorphous distinction when it comes to upgraded game components. And there are many people whose game experiences are measurably benefited by having ALL of the possible upgrades for a game, no matter the style, aesthetic, or purpose. Who am I to question their experience? For myself, while I do frequently fall into the completionist camp, I prefer a more curated upgrade methodology.

I'll be the first to admit I have a lot fun playing brain-burning Euros. That means ALL plastic minis come at a slight disadvantage. Pushing cubes is life, and I'm happy with that. My partner is even less inclined towards miniatures and the toy-factor. Early in our gaming hobby we tried Descent 2nd Edition because she wanted to re-live childhood memories of her brother's D&D days, but I couldn't get her engaged in the dice rolling, and yes, the exceptionally detailed minis. The role playing engagement of fighting a two inch representation of a troll with our one inch representation of heroes didn't work for us.

Board Game: Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar
Board Game: Kingdom Death: Monster
That means a lot of the buzzworthy, miniature-filled Kickstarter campaigns don't appeal to us. But the "Toy Factor" does have its place. For instance, you can't have Fireball Island without the toy factor. Kingdom Death Monster is awe inspiring in its ability to churn out monsters that would not be out of place in a glass case, much less a game you can interact with! Perhaps Kingdom Death fans would think I'm insulting their zeal by naming some of the game's appeal "toy factor," but I'm really not. Exceptionally detailed minis is one method to attract and keep people who like that sort of aesthetic. On another end of the spectrum, many dexterity games would be bland if the components didn't look and feel like toys.

So there is something to be said about components that capture the eye and draw people in. But, by their very existence, components aiming for accurate representations of any part of a game are limiting. Your warrior will always wear that cloak and carry that sword, even though you found a warhammer in the last quest and a shiny breastplate before that. Using a meeple in Descent: Journeys in the Dark wouldn't feel right, but from one perspective, that meeple allows the player's imagination to lead the way. Perhaps this is the greatest defense of classic role playing games: there are no boundaries.


So What's the Solution? ...Realism vs. Style

I don't think I'm splitting hairs to say "realistic resources" is a term that misses the mark, but "stylized resources" more appropriately hits the sweet spot of player engagement while allowing imagination to fill the gaps. And most importantly, my ideal stylized resource will never distract from the basic abstractions we all take for granted.

Agricola's original resources, small colored disks, are servicable. It is, afterall, an amazing game however you play it. But the stylized resources of the Revised Edition spark ideas in the player's head. "I'm hoarding all the wood! Look at this beautiful pile!" Of course they don't think each piece of wood looks like a flat log with two branches. To the player, it's obviously a representation and does not pretend to be realistic, but it engages the player better than brown disks. Scythe's basic resources do the same for me; I obviously see no need to "upgrade" those.

In Splendor we find a different example of stylized resources. The chips ostensibly represent different gems, but they're... poker chips. The publisher could have included plastic gems instead of chips. It might be pretty cheap compared to other "realistic" resources! But Splendor wouldn't be Splendor without the feel of those chips. This is a choice of style emphasizing tactile satisfaction over realism, and that choice made the game what it is today.

Board Game: Vast: The Crystal Caverns
If we look at Vast: The Crystal Caverns we see a Kickstarter game that came with cardboard punchout characters AND meeples. For me, the beautifully shaped meeples are an example of form that follows function. They don't fit in the game world like the miniatures or the punchboard, but they fit in the ruleset better than
Board Game: Root
any other option. Vast is a clever asymmetric game that assumes the players will need a lot of knowledge about how each faction can interact with each other, and I think in the current gaming culture, meeples help indicate that you'll be playing a game within a rigid structure, not role playing a knight while your opponent role plays the dragon (and someone else role plays... a cave). The add-on minis might attract players to the table, but I don't think miniatures prepare the player for the Vast experience.

The recent hit, Root, is another great example of how style can make you feel like that general pushing your army around on a war room map. The different meeples are perfectly cute, simple, representational, and functional. Cheaper cubes could have served just as well, but would not have been as engaging. On the other side of the spectrum, plastic miniatures would limit the narrative that naturally takes root.


The Takeaway (And The Exceptions)

The takeaway is this: consistency and execution of style in game components is more important than false goal of realism, and "bling" upgrades do not always improve the experience for all players. Finding that perfect middle ground between "boring wooden cube" and "garish painted mini" can elevate a game's experience from "fine game with excellent gameplay" to "an excellent game I can tell a story about after every play."

Let's examine one exception that proves the point. Again we come to Scythe, but now we're ignoring the resources and examining the wooden worker meeples vs the plastic leader/mech miniatures. At first glance these opposing styles dreadfully clash. Wood and plastic on the same team? Lion and sheep sleeping in the same bed!? End of times!
Board Game: Scythe

Settle down. This is a perfect example of how style can represent function. The wooden workers produce resources while all plastic pieces can engage in combat. It's an external reminder of the different internal rule systems for Scythe. All components in the retail version of Scythe follow form and function to a degree of purposeful style that I think defines the Scythe experience.

Will you add realistic resources to that experience? What about 3D printed buildings? You know my thoughts about the first and you can guess my reaction to the second. And perhaps, when teaching Scythe to new players, ask yourself, are these blinged-out components helping new players learn the rules? Are they benifiting that new player's experience? Are they benefiting your experience?

The answer is not the same for everyone. But maybe, when it comes to components, some of us can aim for more consistent style and less faux-realism.

-------------

Do you have any examples of game components with perfect style? What about examples of realism-gone-wrong? Let me know!
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