Aesthetics applied to boardgames and sample reviews
Lucas Maciel
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After over a year on BGG I noticed that the following topics often reappear in many forms:

- What makes this game an euro?
- Why are reviews so often concerned with a thorough explanation of the rules?
- What mechanics are lacking on my collection?

These discussions are frequent because we understand and mentally organize games mainly by their mechanics. This is not surprising, for game mechanics are usually the most obvious features of any given game. The inevitable consequence is putting together games like Stone Age and Robinson Crusoe or Star Realms and Mage Knight because they share a common mechanic. What happens next is someone objecting this comparison because, for example, Robinson Crusoe doesn't “feel like” a worker-placement game. The discussion then moves to what is a worker-placement game and the thread derails.

What is often lacking is an understanding of what exactly brings us to a particular game. This discussion can go from biological to sociological levels, but I intend to discuss it as done by Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek. I find their work very insightful but surprisingly unknown in the community. I'll try to apply it to this hobby to the best of my capabilities and see if we have anything to gain from bringing this understanding of aesthetics to our midst.

The first items will present the eight aesthetics as listed by those guys plus one added by the writers of Extra Credits (here).

Then, I'll try to review some of my favorite games according to their ability to bring about these aesthetics and see how it compares to the classic "rules, components and gameplay" way of doing it.

Finally, feel free to add your own short reviews and grades for games you like (or not) and how they meet (or not) these aesthetics.

Discuss!

PS: It's worth noting that few (if any) games touch only one of these aesthetics. Similarly, we are often drawn by a combination of them, some more than others.
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1. Board Game: Star Wars: Imperial Assault [Average Rating:8.14 Overall Rank:25]
Lucas Maciel
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Aesthetic #1
Fantasy
(game as make-believe)

The first aesthetic is one that often causes heated discussions on the geek. Some people simply can't see why is theme so important? Meanwhile, others can't sit through a Uwe Rosemberg game without falling asleep. Theme is immersion and that is make-belive. Of course games are all over the abstraction vs. theme scale but immersion is a huge part of many games and the ability to lose oneself in a different reality is fundamental for the enjoyment of these games. Winning or losing have little importance if you feel like you had an impact on that living and breathing universe you just experienced and left behind. And more often than not, it is also irrelevant if you left your mark using drafting, worker-placement or any other specific mechanism.
 
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2. Board Game: Android: Netrunner [Average Rating:7.92 Overall Rank:39]
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Aesthetic #2
Discovery
(game as uncharted territory)

This aesthetic can be a bit counter-intuitive. Games heavy on "exploration" are usually the first to come to mind, but that is hard to come by in this hobby. There is only so much a modular board can do until it feels samey every game. Especially if compared with video games such as Minecraft and Skyrim.

However, that doesn't mean that discovery is absent from the hobby. As the guys at Extra Credit pointed out, exploring the almost endless combinations of Magic cards (or Android: Netrunner, for that matter) is a game of exploration itself. And a very good one at that, I must say. Games with tons of content, deck construction and customization are normally the usual suspects.
 
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3. Board Game: Nations [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:97]
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Aesthetic #3
Challenge
(game as obstacle course)

Challenge is probably the most common aesthetic among boardgames but it varies just as much as the others. Point-salad or economic games are a good example of games that offer a challenging puzzle. When you play a game as tight as Nations, you know you are in for a brainy challenge. How to balance everything and how to optimize your resources are all delightful stimuli to your grey cells and that's the reason you keep on playing it.
 
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4. Board Game: Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island [Average Rating:7.96 Overall Rank:36]
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Aesthetic #4
Narrative
(game as drama)

Boardgames are rarely concerned with telling a specific, well-tailored story. Examples like Mice & Mystics are hard to come by, but that doesn’t mean that this aesthetic is hard to find around here. Boardgames are especially good at telling a narrative that wasn’t thought of beforehand. Games like Dead of Winter and Robinson Crusoe make you look back at everything that happened and see an arc develop. You have progression, character development and plot twists. This narrative will heavily depend on how invested the players are on the game and how well it thrives on the first aesthetic (fantasy), but on the right group, this narrative is more enjoyable than any well-written script.
 
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5. Board Game: Magic: The Gathering [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:155] [Average Rating:7.45 Unranked]
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Aesthetic #5
Expression
(game as self-discovery)

Games can be a means for us to leave our mark and show what makes us unique. This aesthetic needs more than the simple “many paths to victory.” The game should allow high levels of customization. Games with progression, with a myriad of items or almost endless permutations (e.g. games with deck construction prior to play) commonly enable one to do it like only one would. Quoting Mark Rosemberg (one of MtG's current designers): "It's very important to Johnny that he win on his own terms."
 
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6. Board Game: Love Letter [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:215]
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Aesthetic #6
Fellowship
(game as social framework)

Another aspect very strongly represented in the hobby. Of course there are solo (and multiplayer solitaire) games that are absolutely great, well-designed experiences, but we can mostly agree that the greatest percentage of the hobby is concerned in allowing people to interact and have a great time together. Fellowship is a great part of cooperative games (and often one of the main reasons to play it, along with the challenge aesthetic) but I believe that a healthy competition can create equally strong bonds and friendships.
 
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7. Board Game: Small World [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:186] [Average Rating:7.32 Unranked]
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Aesthetic #7
Competition
(game as a platform of comparison)

This aesthetic was not in the original article but was added by Extra Credits and I discuss upon. The need for a clash of minds is often the reason many people avoid cooperative games. If it wasn't for competition, most games would actually be pointless. It certainly feels good to finish the game ahead of other players but the role this extrinsic reward plays on different games vary greatly as well. Nonetheless, our pride will often draw us to games where we can try to better others and feel good about ourselves one more time. It's all about how we compare to others.
 
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8. Board Game: Star Realms [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:87] [Average Rating:7.63 Unranked]
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Aesthetic #8
Submission
(game as pastime)

Although it bears a strange name, this aesthetic should be familiar to most gamers. Submission is a form of escapism or a flow-like state where one loses conscience of time and is absolutely drawn to the activity at hand. It's not necessarily an immersion like the one fantasy provides and it is perhaps more easily understood when talking of videogames. The game to bring this aesthetic about should be challenging but not too much and games with low setup time and complexity are the most probable to fall into this category.
 
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9. Board Game: Dixit [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:195] [Average Rating:7.32 Unranked]
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Aesthetic #9
Sensation
(game as sense-pleasure)

This is probably the hardest aesthetic to find in boardgames and, yes, if you want thumbs you can make that joke, but you won't be getting mine. whistle

This aesthetic is best understood with games like Rez and Flower. It is simply hard to match the immersive beauty of some of today's videogame graphics and sounds with boardgames, but I believe that some pretty components, like card arts, might help some games hit the table more often.
 
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10. Board Game: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game [Average Rating:7.63 Overall Rank:105]
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Now onto some reviews. These will be quite short as I try to highlight some of these aesthetics in my (short) collection. These grades don't necessarily reflect my current ratings on the geek as well.

Fantasy: 9
The game is immersive and thematic. The designer find creative ways of putting theme into mechanics with every expansion and if you are into Tolkien's universe, it comes to life beautifully in this game.

Discovery: 10
Like other CCGs and LCGs, this game can be not only a money sink, but a time one as well. The shear amount of expansions, cards, quests and possible deck combinations will easily draw players that are into these stuff. Magic: the Gathering hooked me for this very same reason and LotR: LCG does not disappoint.

Challenge: 8
The difficulty can be very different from quest to quest, but you often find yourself into a puzzle-like dilemma where you know your next few actions might have a great influence on things to come.

Narrative: 8
The overarching stories are pretty shallow and do not offer too much novelty into this very explored universe, but the game thrives at the play-level narratives. I still remember exciting stories I experienced in previous plays.

Expression: 6
The four main factions of the game allow much room for customization. They thrive at different aspects of the game and playing with each can feel very different. However, for a successful play, you'll often need to balance all factions, either in a single deck or coordinating with others. Also, specific obstacles in some quests will force your hand into building certain decks.

Fellowship: 10
Well, it's a cooperative game after all, it's all about coordination. You can play it solitaire, but when two or more players are playing, the game will severely punish "multiplayer-solitaire" and reward good coordination.

Competition: 0
You can sum up your individual scores. Don't.

Submission: 5

Setup can be demanding (finding all the right decks) and deck construction is not exactly a flow-inducing activity, but if you have some ready, it is easily a pastime.

Sensation: 2

Well, pretty art. Not exactly the main reason for playing it, but helps.
 
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11. Board Game: 7 Wonders [Average Rating:7.80 Overall Rank:42]
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Fantasy: 2
Not exactly the most immersive and theme-filled game. That is really a bad thing since that's not what the game tries to accomplish.

Discovery: 5
There is a bit of discovery as you find out how different cities (and sides) play out. It should take a few plays for you to see all cards and get a feel for different strategies as well.

Challenge: 10
I give it a high grade not because the game is particularly challenging or mind-taxing but because the decisions are SO GOOD. Your strategy evolves with the game, there is a tension around what to play and what to keep someone from playing and different paths to victory all look tempting. This is the main reason I want to play this game: I want to solve it again and again.

Narrative: 2
Hmm...remember that time when you got some military and I got even more military? Yeah, that's about it.

Expression: 6
Not much of customization going.

Fellowship: 8
I find this game quite good to bond with people. You can have your non-gamer friends play it, there is always some chit-chat going on and is usually a pleasant experience to everyone.

Competition: 9
Not much interaction, but seeing how your plans compare to others is always intriguing.

Submission: 8
Not a bad game at that. Little to no downtime and very approachable rules makes you engaged throughout the whole thing. You can play games on end without even feeling it.

Sensation: 1
Not here. Keep looking.
 
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12. Board Game: Hive [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:205]
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Fantasy: 0
Oh, look! I'm a sp...forget it.

Discovery: 0
It takes you one game to see everything there is to it.

Challenge: 10
The reason to play it (along with competition). As any other abstract game, it's about the puzzle at hand. This game is elegant and very successful at the approachability and reward-ability of this puzzle.

Narrative: 0
Nope.

Expression: 0
Nope as well.

Fellowship: 5
I have fun playing one-on-one and it can be a good pastime with a friend.

Competition: 10
The reason to play it. No luck (in the broadest sense). A pure clash of wits.


Submission: 7

The game is very engaging. The simplicity of the rules allows for almost no distractions during gameplay.


Sensation: 7

Click-clack. Oh, it feels good to play with those pieces you haven't deployed yet.

I believe Hive is a good example that the quality of a game is certainly different from the sum of its marks on specific aesthetics. Also, it takes a lot of pressure off needing a quantitative verdict of a game.

So, what do you think. Can this model be used to write more extensive reviews?

Feel free to add some games of yours as well.
 
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