Those of us with an interest in board games will always have a few assumptions about what board games actually are. In recent weeks I’ve found myself most captivated by games which challenge these assumptions, and that reached a peak today when I said to designer Gregory Carslaw (3DTotalGames) “I think your game is three dimensional, but they’re not the three dimensions I’m used to working in”. Mind blown yet? Read on…
First assumption: the idea that a board game is a discrete activity which goes back into the box in the same form as it came out. The games which challenge this are, of course, Legacy games, such as Risk Legacy. In this game a player may wish to fortify a city and, if they do, that city will be fortified in every subsequent game. You could argue that this concept already exists: it’s been around for decades in the form of role-playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. I like to think of the rise of Legacy games as yet another blurring of the distinction between board and role-playing games.
Second assumption: the number of main characters in a game should be the same as the number of players. What do I mean by this? In Forbidden Island, players are working together to survive and each player is represented by their own piece. Most games follow this pattern, although some have a “game master” role in addition to the normal players. For me, this idea was turned on its head when I first played Captain Sonar, a game in which two teams of four players crew submarines and attempt to blow each other up. Each player has a their own job to do, and the combination of their roles makes the game complex. To me it didn’t feel like a cooperative game: it felt like a two-player head-to-head in which each “player” was in fact made up of four constituent parts. After my first playthrough I had no choice but to stay up all night creating a game which mimicked this idea (it has yet to be tested).
Third assumption: in a role-playing game, players become individual characters (this is one I’m thinking of working on myself). How about a game in which we control a group of characters? “OK I’ve reached level three so I’m going to make two of my characters fall in love. What affect is this going to have?”.
And so, back to Gregory. The game we played today challenged the idea that a game “turn” cannot be altered after the next turn has begun, and that the Past is fixed. As we set the game up I found myself looking at four identical square grids populated by identical pieces. We started the game on one grid and, once all its actions had been used up, set up the next as the current grid currently stood and continued on the new grid. An action could involve gaining ground on the current grid or altering a previous grid, thus changing the past. Any piece which could not justify its existence by presenting a valid timeline in which it had not been captured would vanish in a puff of smoke. Awesome.
Why did I find the game so hard? I concluded it was because I was being presented with choices in three dimensions: forward/backward, left/right and past/present. I suggested to Gregory it could be made simpler by making the boards one dimensional (just a line of squares, thus reducing the game to a more accessible two dimensions. We also discussed the idea of a “worker placement” mechanic, in which a piece on the board can be moved by simply going back in time and informing the universe it had been in the new spot all along. Perhaps this description of motion is a valid way of describing motion in our own universe? I think the answer is a resounding “no”, but it’s an interesting question anyway.
A last question, if I may. Gregory’s game was definitely abstract, but I still felt like a Terminator-style time traveler trying to squash a rival. When playing Go, a famously abstract game, I still think about it in the way I was taught: “I am a greedy farmer trying to build fences to contain my as many cows as possible”. Is it possible for a game to be truly abstract, or does our desire for characters and storytelling lend a theme to any game we interact with? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.
Apologies for yet another long and rambling article. I will get around to telling you more about Master of Olympus itself, I promise.