Shape Shifting: Flexible Representation in Games
Roger Yim
United States
Austin
Texas
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I spend a lot of time thinking about the topic of representation in games. I am fascinated by how games imbue wooden cubes, cards, counters, dice, boards, etc., with properties that define them as something else. A wooden pawn is an explorer; a cube is a caballero (or even more intriguingly, “influence” made physical). These properties are necessary to establish relationships that fit into a system that models, to a lesser or greater extent, a real-world scenario.

This list is about a kind of transformative representation that I find particularly interesting. I'm talking about when a game object changes its function during gameplay while remaining physically unaltered (except in position). Minor instances of this happen all the time, as when a captured piece becomes a victory point. But there are elevated instances, such as the examples I’ve listed below. Note that I am not commenting on the overall quality of these games. Please feel free to add other examples.
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1. Board Game: San Juan [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:228]
Roger Yim
United States
Austin
Texas
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This is the game that prompted this list. In San Juan, any single card can serve several purposes. Face up on the table, it is building; face down on a production building, it is a resource marker; played from one’s hand, it is a unit of currency. This is one of the ways in which the designer has reduced the complexities of Puerto Rico to fit into a compact card game. A spectacular example of ingenuity and economy.
 
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2. Board Game: Railroad Dice [Average Rating:6.20 Overall Rank:3778]
Roger Yim
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Austin
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The dice in this game have multiple functions, depending on which face is on top and where the dice is located on the table. On the terrain tiles, they are placed as tracks. In front of a player’s screen, they are resources that can be played in various ways according to the topmost face (tracks, stock vouchers, wild cards). Behind a player’s screen, dice are currency used to pay for track placement; the orientation of the dice does not matter. What I particularly like about this scheme is that moving a die from behind to in front of one’s screen changes its state from a marker (it might as well be blank) to a normally functioning die (i.e., it must be rolled) to a kind of counter whose properties are indicated by the topmost face.
 
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3. Board Game: Oltre Mare [Average Rating:6.68 Overall Rank:1198]
Roger Yim
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Austin
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There are numerous examples of card games in which the cards display various pieces of information that allow them to be used in multiple ways (Plunder, most CCGs, etc.). I don’t necessarily think all of these games belong on this list. Oltremare, however, makes the cut. Each card has seven pieces of information on it, each of which has an independent function and value. For example, a card may allow a player to execute more actions during the current turn but restrict the number of cards a player may hold at the start of the next turn. Weighing these attributes against each other is in part what makes this game interesting. The transformation occurs when a played card is moved to the top of a player’s cargo stack: it changes from an action card that provides immediate benefits to a modifier that effects the player’s next turn. At the end of the game, the cards in the cargo stack become sets of resources that are scored. Very neat.
 
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4. Board Game: New England [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:1698]
Roger Yim
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Austin
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An element in New England falls into a lesser category of transformation, one that involves multiuse turn-order markers. In New England, players begin each round by choosing one of the markers numbered from 1 to 10. The marker determines two things using the same number: the turn order (with the highest going first) and the cost of each item purchased. Thus, if you pick a high number, you can choose what to buy first, but it will be expensive. It’s an elegantly simple balancing mechanism. The power cards in El Grande operate in a similar way.
 
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5. Board Game: Quest for the Faysylwood [Average Rating:6.29 Overall Rank:10041]
Jay Little
United States
Eden Prairie
Minnesota
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I think Faysylwood qualifies -- although the values of the cards are only determined once you play it... So unlike San Juan, it doesn't represent different things based on its current state (in hand, buried for points, etc) but has the potential to be used for a variety of options.

For the amount of information they cram onto the cards and into the rules, I have to say that designer David Shaw did an excellent job organizing the rules and providing examples. A card diagram clearly shows how each card holds important information about the Physical and Magical strengths the card can apply as modifiers to actions, as well as other features of the card.

Each card can be used for a variety of purposes - from the actual named feature on the card (like a location or piece of equipment) to being subbed out as a magic spell (each card has a spell it can be used as) or to determine random numbers for combat resolution, etc.
 
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6. Board Game: Title Bout [Average Rating:6.65 Overall Rank:4206]
Hector Irizarry
United States
Unspecified
Alabama
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The same card or action can be used for events, random numbers and other results for the game.
 
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7. Board Game: Bohnanza [Average Rating:7.06 Overall Rank:369]
Red Moss
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Bohnanza - In your hand and face up on the table the cards represent beans. Face down in front fo you the cards are gold pieces.
 
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8. Board Game: Shogi [Average Rating:7.29 Overall Rank:1083]
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The promotion of a Shogi piece. It is flipped, granted, but its position relative to the playing surface remains unaltered. Many games have promotion, of course, but most, like chess, typically require the replacement of a piece by another. It is interesting to note that many wargames have double-sided counters that are flipped to show a loss of strength or a change in another characteristic.
 
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9. Board Game: Carcassonne [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:139] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
Alan Kaiser
United States
Aurora
Colorado
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This might be a bit of a stretch but the meeples in this game represent something different depending on where they are placed. Of course, this is just theme and nothing more since they all equate to victory points.
 
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10. Board Game: HellRail (Second Perdition) [Average Rating:6.06 Overall Rank:9019]
Tom Scutt
United Kingdom
Matlock
Derbyshire
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It's a long time since I played this but I remember being impressed by the way each card could be used for a wide variety of different functions. As far as I remember every card could be played:
1) onto the table as new rail, or
2) to add a car onto your train (if at the matching circle), or
3) to remove (deliver) a car from your train (if at the matching circle), or
4) to move the train a distance equal to the car's value, or
5) to draw a number of cards equal to its brimstone value
I also particularly liked the fact that each car was marked with which variety of sinner (e.g. Adulterers, Traitors, Thieves) it contained.
 
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11. Board Game: Yu-Gi-Oh! DungeonDice Monsters [Average Rating:5.90 Overall Rank:12397]
Roger Yim
United States
Austin
Texas
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In the original Japanese version of this game (which may have had broader appeal without its Yu-Gi-Oh theme), dice are rolled and then unfolded to become part of the board. This follows the conditions of this list in the most literal way. The U.S. release of this game, alas, did away with the unfolding cubes.
 
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12. Board Game: Homeworlds [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:2913]
Rusty McFisticuffs
United States
Arcata
California
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In Homeworlds, pieces which are standing up are star systems; pieces laying down are ships.

(Although the picture shows cards, it's not at all a card game; the cards just tell which players are good & which are evil, and to show which star systems are their home worlds. Poker chips, bottle caps, etc. work as well.)
 
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13. Board Game: Meuterer [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:801]
Patrick Schultz
United States
Eugene
Oregon
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In Meuterer, cards played to the table represent goods to be traded, while cards left in your hand represent intent to sail to a specific island (if you are the captain or the mutineer).
 
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14. Board Game: Strat-O-Matic Pro Basketball [Average Rating:6.91 Overall Rank:5360]
Dick Hunt
United States
Orlando
Florida
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Much of the action in a game of Strat-O-Matic basketball is dictated by a deck of action cards which are simply stuffed with information. At any given moment, one action card could tell you:

Who has the ball (or if they're passing it, and to whom)

What they're doing with it (home/visitor sections reflect the home team advantage by having a few more favorable results for the home team)

Who's got a shot at grabbing a rebound

What's happening on a fastbreak play or during a press defense

And the beauty of it is the way the action deck also serves as the game clock. You only use one of the above readings off any one action card. For example, one card will tell you that your center has the ball. You flip the card and use the next one to see what he does with it. Sometimes you roll the dice for a shot. If it's missed, you can use the face up action card to determine who rebounds, and then sometimes you'll flip another card to see what happens on the fastbreak, etc. Once you get the hang of it, you're flipping cards like a madman and the game rips right along.
 
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15. Board Game: Neuland [Average Rating:6.52 Overall Rank:1885]
Brian Bankler
United States
San Antonio
Texas
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In neuland, a piece's location determines what it is. Any movement indicates that the item has been converted (ore to metal, for example).
 
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