Board game design

Storytelling for better board-games

Introduction

Roses don't actually make the best of bookmarks...
Roses don’t actually make the best of bookmarks…
“Once upon a time there was…”

And after that there will probably be something about evil princesses and beautiful dragons (right!?).

We read books, watch movies: Fairytales, thrillers, historical dramas. We crawl into the skin of the protagonist, hoping she will be ok after that horrible encounter with the bad guys. We turn page after page, are glued to our seats, with just one question on our minds: “What happens next?!”

Which is almost the same question we have when we play a board-game: “What happens after I do this?”

Going to the movies (or, why we like stories)

The heroine is hanging by the tip of one finger, struggling not to fall off of the cliff, blood streaming off her face. We are at the edge of our seat, hoping fervently that somehow she survives. Then when that finger (inevitably) starts to slip, a hand reaches down, pulling her up. We let out our breaths in a collective sigh of relief…

No text, no color, and still we feel for him!
No text, no color, and still we feel for him!
Hollywood is great it making us feel, building up tension until it becomes unbearable and then releasing it (only to do it again, but worse!)

As humans we crave emotions, the stronger the better! Any form of entertainment is meant to give the audience / participants that rush of feeling. Think about it: Horror movies engender fear, amusement parks bring excitement and thrill, historical dramas make you bored (sorry, I couldn’t resist… 🙂 ).

And board-games…? We want to feel our board-games as well!

The structure of a board-game

All board-games have a very simple structure: The player wants to achieve victory, with the rules of the game and the other players forming obstacles. And in the end she either won or did not. Time for a new game.

This is exactly the structure of a story: The protagonist tries to achieve something, encounters obstacles on the way to her goal and in the end does or does not get what she wants. The end.

Board-games have the exact structure of a story.

So maybe we can use the thousands of years of experience that people have in telling stories to make more enticing board-games?

Emotions natural to board-games

Like a book or movie, board-games are meant to engender emotions. And some emotions come very naturally:

  • Victory / achievement: Winning gives a rush, a high. For many people this is the most important reason to play any kind of game
  • Loss: When we lose we feel defeated, down. And though this isn’t a positive emotion, it most certainly is a strong one!
  • Tension / anticipation: Is this going to work out or not? This is what we feel before we win or lose (either the game or a playing piece)

The emotions related to winning and losing are present in (just about) any board-game you can think of. And for some games this is enough. There are abstract games that do just fine with these, requiring nothing more.

But it’s possible to go beyond that, or at least to strengthen these emotions further.

What is the story in a board-game?

Not so poor anymore actually...
Not so poor anymore actually…
As mentioned, board-games have the structure of a story. So what kind of stories do we tell in board-games? Some examples (with a bit of dramatic embellishment from my side):

  • Catan: The drama of a virgin island ruthlessly exploited by different empires.
  • Agricola: A story spanning multiple generations of a group of farmers trying to rise out of poverty
  • Lewis & Clark: An epic journey to reach the far side of a continent
Story and theme

From the examples above you might think that “story” and “theme” are the same, but I believe that they are not. “Theme” carries the story for a large part, but it is not the last word (pun intended).

The theme is the setting, the background, the land where the protagonists live and struggle. It exists before the game is played, in the board, cards and other components. It’s in the artwork and the rules. But the theme is un-moving, something that is just there.

Only in playing do we create our stories
Only in playing do we create our stories
It’s the living and struggling that makes for a story. It’s the things we do on the land, the way we interact with the rules, how the artwork comes to life when we play a card. It’s the brilliant move that turns the table or the unlucky dice roll that dooms a player.

It’s in playing the game that we actually create the story.

Gaming better stories

How do we use insights from story-telling to make better board-games?

I believe that there are three important things that board-games designers can learn from stories:

  • Suspension of disbelief
  • Indentification
  • Buildup

Let’s look at these in turn.

Supspension of disbelief

Of course there are dragons! How boring would the world be without them?
Of course there are dragons! How boring would the world be without them?
What a good story does is suck the audience into it, take them into the world of the creator. It suspends disbelief.

We should strive to do the same in our board-games, which means making each element as believable as possible.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have fantastic elements in your game (who doesn’t love dragons, zombies and aliens?), but it does mean that within the setting each element has to be consistent and plausible.

How do we do this?

Intertwined mechanics and theme

To suspend disbelief the theme and mechanics of the game should support each other.

Mechanics should be explainable within the theme and the theme should flow from the combination of mechanics. It should feel natural what you’re doing in the game: “Yes, in the world that’s being sketched, it makes sense to [place a worker, attack, build, etc.]”.

This is not always easy, sometimes the game needs a mechanic that doesn’t make sense in the story (or vise versa). But if it were easy it wouldn’t be fun!

Believable motivation

In every book and movie a lot of thought is given to why someone wants what they want: In the opening scene a family is liquidated so that the rest of the movie we can see the hero blowing people up for revenge.

Very few board-games go into the motivation of the player: Why are you [building the biggest city / attacking the opponent / gathering as much money as possible]? For many games it’s not easy to come up with a good rationale, but that makes games that do do this stand out even more!

Sensible ending

Now -this- would make for a spectacular ending!
Now -this- would make for a spectacular ending!
“I’ve got 10 victory points, I win!”

Why?

Why would a game end after 10 points? Why not 9 or 20 or 100? Why even after a certain amount of victory points?

Stories end when they’ve come to a conclusion. The thing that the protagonist wanted has been achieved (or not) and there is little more to say about it (until the sequel of course!).

We can do the same in board-games: Lewis & Clark ends when the other side of North America is reached. T.I.M.E. Stories ends when the mystery has been solved.

This is not an easy feat however! In competitive games everybody is trying to achieve more-or-less the same, making it hard to say that some sort of “conclusion” has been reached. However, with some creative thinking I’m sure you can come up with something that would give a good reason for why the game ends (and who the victor is).

Identification – A protagonist just like me

Feelings don’t form in a vacuum, we either feel for ourselves, or for someone else. In a story the audience is not a participant, so they need to feel for someone else, the good-guy (m/f)!

To do this they need to be able to identify with her. Which is easiest to do when she is as much like the player as possible.

Translating this to board-games means choosing a representation that is as much like the player as possible. If in the game you’re playing as a civilization, can you be the emperor of that civilization? Is it possible to make the player the CEO of the company instead of the company itself?

“Imperial Settlers” is a nice example of this. Each (small) player board has a picture at the bottom of a royally bedecked representative of the race you’re playing as (e.g. a pharaoh for the Egyptians). You can also choose which side of this board to use: One side has a female and the other a male character. Through some well-placed artwork you have get to play as the king or queen of that race, instead of as the race itself.

Buildup

“I need to know what happens next!”

This is what keeps us enthralled in the cinema or turning page after page in our book, long after bedtime.

How do we create this?

Story arch

Good story arcs are explosive! They should also contain them
Good story arcs are explosive! They should also contain them
In stories there is a arc: A slow beginning, gathering speed, leading to a climax, after which tension is released. Most stories have multiple of these sequences, with each climax higher than the previous one, working up to the final confrontation.

Many games follow this set-up at least partially: We start out with few resources, building them up until we get stronger and stronger. The other players are doing the same, leading to a final climatic scoring.

Can you have sub-buildups and sub-climaxes? Maybe have a reckoning at the end of every round?

Can you release tension mid-way? Perhaps by having players spend a significant portion of their resources, getting a moment of calm before it starts anew?

Reversal of fortune

Many games have you “build and engine”, meaning that you spend resources to build something to gather more resources (see this article on feedback-loops in board-games for a bit more on the subject). The result is that the one who is ahead, will generally stay ahead.

This can be mitigated by ending the game when it’s clear there will be a winner, or by apply negative feedback.

But isn’t it more exciting to have swings in fortune? We all love an underdog to claw its way up, Only to be brought low again when she is king of the hill.

This means that it has to be clear who is ahead (no hiding of victory points!) and that there is a clear way of “overtaking the leader”. Perhaps this means taking a significant risk?

Another way is by “ganging up on the leader”. This can however drag games on, because it becomes very hard to actually win if anybody who gets ahead is constantly brought low.

One elegant way is by mechanically making “being ahead” inherently unstable: The more you have, the larger the chance you have to lose a significant portion.

Some final thoughts

A story makes the game come alive
A story makes the game come alive
Personally I enjoy a game that really takes me to another world. But I also know that there are other ways of enjoying a game. Some people just want to win, others want to socialize, a third wants to have an intellectual puzzle. Telling stories through games would make me happy, but I’m not the only one out there, so give some thought about who your audience is and what game you want to make.

A game that tells a story is harder game to make: There are more boundary conditions that you need to satisfy. Is it worth it to you to do that, or is it easier to not bother?

On the other hand, maybe a few more boundary conditions reduce your design space, so that it actually becomes easier to create your game?

Story telling is an extremely long tradition and I’ve picked out just a few elements that I think could have the biggest impact on how we enjoy board-games. There are however many many more that you could incorporate. The above is to get you thinking, not to stop you from thinking!

Next steps

There is definitely more to be said about emotions in board-games. I might even be the one to write about them!

The same can be said for getting inspired by stories and story-telling.

There are some very nice things done in stories that I’ve never seen in a board-game: Can you introduce chapters to a game (modern legacy games come close!)? Is it possible to have flashbacks in a board-game? How about a trilogy of games, one picking up where the previous left off? I’m sure I’ll be giving these more thought in the future!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, tell me your story, let me know in the comments or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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4 Comments

  1. Candy

    Wow, amazing post. I am printing it so I can really digest it. I am new to gaming design but am quite familiar with story structure, I joke that while editing two novels I homeschooled for my MFA. The game I am designing can definitely benefit from the way of thinking you have laid out. Thank you!!!

    Reply
  2. It should also be noted that games of sport often conform to the same rules of story pacing: there are moments of drama, building tension, minor resolutions and eventual victory. The reason I think football (soccer) is the most-watched sport in the world is that its structure can produce minor victories within the game – scoring – without those resulting in the entire game’s resolution becoming clear — that is, that there are few enough goals in the average game that it’s always possible that the losing side can make a turnaround, even against the run of play. This results in long periods of dramatic tension, resolved either at half-time, by an equalizer, or the final whistle.

    And yet few boardgames seem to emulate this extremely-low-scoring behaviour. It would be interesting to play one that did.

    Separately, here’s another thought on boardgame pacing: points-race games *suck*, because there is no dramatic buildup to the winner’s final turn. Either the winner is known a few turns in advance so there is no tension, or the winner comes out of leftfield with a big move which is so unpredictable you didn’t spot it, or the winner wins in their turn just before another player would have won in their turn, leaving the second player thinking “well, if only I’d gone first, I would have won”. Both Catan and Splendour suck for this.

    An example of a sort of points-race game which does manage to have great dramatic tension is Shadows Over Camelot — in this game the players are co-operating (with possibly a hidden villain) as knights of the round table to win various quests, but there are too many on the board to win all at the same time and so the “bad guys” inevitably win a few. Winning or losing places white or black swords onto the round table and the game is only lost or won once one side fills at least half the table. So early victories and losses provide small resolutions both good and bad, but with the tension ratcheting up as the game goes on and each individual point appears to become more and more important. How this points-race manages to feel tense and close compared to Catan and Splendour, I’m not sure. Perhaps again it is that each individual point gained is a multi-turn fight to accomplish.

    Reply
    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Wow, that’s a great insight!

      I’m personally not a fan of watching -any- kind of sports, but I fully agree that it’s more interesting if the “buildup” is similar to a story (or good board-game 🙂 ). I guess this is one more problem I have with a “point salad” type of game, there is no real buildup (though some have a decent “end round” where you score a lot of points and add tension).

      I’ve been playing “Lewis & Clark” quite a bit recently and I fully agree with the “racing sucks”. Most games it was obvious who was going to win a few turns before that happened. Very demotivating for the other players for sure! And as long as you’re in second place you can still hope for a win, but when you’re really lagging, there is just no way you’re going to be the winner… Still love the other game mechanics though! 🙂

      Reply

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