Recently I played a game of “Terraforming Mars”. Being the huge nerd I am, I immensely enjoyed the game (whilst at the same time griping wholeheartedly about some of the components).
One of the most enjoyable moments came when I got a “Huge ice asteroid” card. It was expensive (in terms of in-game resources) and the game effect were pretty nifty. But that’s not what makes it a moment to remember.
In real life all I did was move some tokens from one place to another, take a card from my hand, showed it to everybody and placed it in front of me.
In my mind however I crashed a huge friggin’ asteroid on the face of another planet!!!
I was picturing gigatonnes of frozen water, hurtling down through an almost-non-existent (but slowly thickening!) atmosphere, delivering desperately needed water and heat to a barren planet.
Moving a card from my hand to the table and kissing a foreign planet with an asteroid. Could anything be more different than these two things? And yet, they did come together, in this particular game of Terraforming Mars.
A mind in two places
Games are played in two places at the same time.
On the board we shift around tokens, move our meeples, play cards. There are very strict rules about what we can and cannot do.
At the same time we’re playing in our minds, where we’re feeding our family, erecting monuments to the gods or sending asteroids to impact the face of a planet humanity hasn’t even been to yet. Here there aren’t any rules: You can do whatever it is that you like!
The first part (what happens on the board) are the mechanics and the rules. The second contains the “theme” of the game. But I believe it contains much more than just that.
The mechanistic approach
A game exists first and foremost because of its mechanics. Chess and Go, two of the most venerated games in history have next to no theme to them. If the mechanics are interesting enough, people will happily forget about the (lack of) theme and immersion.
I’ve played many a great game of Dominion and only when thinking about it afterwards does it seem weird that something like a village would come up at random moments instead of, you know, just being there! But the game is fun, the mechanics work and it’s a staple for introducing people to “the next level” of board games.
It even has its own moments of awesome, where you’re chaining card upon card and end up buying two provinces in the same turn. These are of a “mechanistic” awesomeness: You got to do something that made a big difference in game (what I called “Impact” in this post).
Feeding the mind
Most games I’ve played do not have hurtling-huge-balls-of-dirty-ice-into-the-face-of-Earth’s-neighbor-moments (or something of similar awesomeness). Mostly I’m too engrossed in finding the optimal move to pay much attention to what I’m doing “thematically”.
Which is a shame, because when these moments do happen, they tend to make the game so much better!
They transform an abstract optimization problem into something that feels real. They change a tough but engaging puzzle into something that, even if just for a moment, actually matters.
How to engage the imagination
So what do these games have in common? I think there are a number of elements.
The games mentioned above all try to “simulate life” as closely as possible. They’ve taken a setting and players can do anything and everything that “makes sense” within that setting. And they’ve made it such that the way players do what they want to do also makes sense.
In Terraforming Mars you play a huge corporation that expends millions upon millions of Euros to re-arrange the solar system. Humanity can’t do this yet, but once we can this would be a way of doing it.
In Robinson Crusoe players use the limited time they have in a day to improve their lives on a deserted island, whilst trying to stave off one (small) disaster after another. It makes sense to consider whether it’s worth it to go hungry for a day if it means you can finish that shelter which will be useful for many nights to come.
It means that any action the player takes can be directly translated into real life and that there is as little as possible to clash with our view of reality. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be abstraction (please don’t try to simulate everything; I’m very happy that my pawns don’t need to use the toilet in-game…) but it does mean that you need to reach a reasonable amount of verisimilitude.
In Robinson Crusoe you are simulating a number of days and need to feed your characters at the beginning of the night phase. In Netrunner however time is far less important so there is no need to “feed” your character. Both work perfectly well in their respective settings.
In each of the games mentioned above you’re playing a realistic “character”. For most games this is a human being though in the case of Terraforming Mars a big corporation also does the trick.
These “characters” (I’ll leave off the quotation marks after this) are (somewhat) fleshed out: I’m this character and not that one. Characters are unique, in that they have individual abilities and a unique representation. Here a picture says more than a thousand words and makes characters much more relatable.
Having a fleshed out character makes a wonderful form of dissociation possible, where a player becomes the character. Once this happens it is much easier to stay in the “game world”, translating mechanics into the working of real life and player actions into character actions. No longer am I moving a pawn, no, I am moving myself!
Note that there doesn’t have to be a 1-to-1 match between a player and their character. In Dead of Winter you’re a group of (individual, fleshed-out) people instead of a single person. In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re a (generic) temporal agent who inhabits an (individual, fleshed-out) person. There is something of a remove, but this still works.
You’ve got to keep ‘em motivated!
There is one part of “realistic characters” that I want to address separately: Motivation. Many game don’t really explain “why” you (your character) wants to do something. In Agricola I guess it’s sortof a good idea to have a bigger farm, but does it really matter whether it’s bigger than the neighbor’s (or that I have at least one of each type of animal)?
In the games mentioned however it’s clear why you’re doing what you do. In Netrunner the corporation wants to advance its agenda’s because that’s what corporations do. For the runner this is even better because the different characters actually have different motivations (ranging from hard profit to “because they can”). In T.I.M.E. Stories you’re solving the mystery because your boss ordered you, while in Robinson Crusoe it’s a fight for survival.
Motivations don’t have to be particularly strong, as long as they beat “that’s how the game is played”. This is because the character is not playing the game, it’s the player that’s playing. And if the character is doing something that doesn’t make sense for them to do in the real world, it’s very hard for the player to suspend disbelief and get in the skin of the character.
The cost of immersion
Games exist in a spectrum from pure abstract to “as life-like as possible”. The more you get to the latter, the easier it is to create immersion and memorable moments.
This comes at a cost though. Life-like means simulating enough of “real life” to make it believable and that can mean that you have to leave things out of your game because they don’t mesh with reality. Likewise, it can mean you have to put things in that aren’t good for play but make the illusion more believable.
This is a choice or a balance if you will. There are games that get played a lot even though they’re only half a step away from pure abstracts (Dominion anyone?). Some player prefer tight gameplay over having a story afterwards (or during the game). And neither is better than the other (just different!).
I’ve never hacked a megacorporation’s protected server, I have never been stranded on a deserted island, I’ve never thrown an asteroid onto the surface of a planet.
Except that I have, through playing awesome board games!
For me these kinds of games rise above other games which are “merely” innovative, perfectly balanced and tightly designed. As such I hope to one day be able to design something that reaches these heights as well.
Maybe the same holds true for you? If so, I hope that this post was of use for you!
And if maybe you know of other games that engender this sense of immersion, do let me know because I would love to play them!
If you want to know more about this subject, maybe these posts are also of interest to you:
Storytelling for better board games, as story-telling is an important part of creating immersion.
Creating tension in board games, as immersion can help to increase tension and the other way around
I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know in the comments below or on Twitter if you agree or where you think I completely missed the point?!
About the author
Hi, 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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