When you look at the top board games on Board Game Geek’s ranking system, that impressive but imperfect measure of a board game’s quality, what do you notice? I’ll tell you what has stuck out to me recently. Firstly, there has been a dramatic number of new entries in the last 2 years. Just look at them all!
- Pandemic Legacy
- Through the Ages 2nd Ed
- Star Wars Rebellion
- 7 wonders duel
- Terraforming Mars
- Blood Rage
- Mansions of madness 2nd ed
- Mechs vs minions
- Food Chain Magnate
- Time stories
What has caused this explosion in quality? Or at least an explosion in positive voting? Is it the much maligned Kickstarter effect, whereby users excited about a new game they are backing rate it highly before they even receive it? Both Scythe and Gloomhaven are Kickstarter games with thousands of excited backers but they are both, in their own ways, exceptional games and certainly deserve to be high up in the rankings, in my opinion (check out my thoughts on Scythe and Gloomhaven). Besides, there are plenty of non-kickstarters in that list above.
Perhaps the growing hobby has resulted in such an expansion in BGG’s user base, all of whom are enthusiastic subscribers to the cult of the new and as new members are so much more enthusiastic about the games that have come out recently that they have skewed the ratings of those new releases. No I don’t think that’s too likely either.
So it must be something else, something about the games themselves, and I have an idea of what that thing might be. Now, I don’t want to claim this is the only reason but I do think it is a hugely important factor, which will have a big impact on the direction of game design and publishing in the coming years. Right, let’s get to the point shall we?
Let me tell you a story
From all the new entries into the BGG top 25 or so, the strongest connecting factor to my eyes is a strong sense of story or world. The astonishing rise of Pandemic Legacy last year is in no doubt thanks to its incredible approach to story. Unlike almost any game before, it had a real, scripted, narrative to experience, which certainly drove me back to it again and again in the board gaming equivalent of Netflix. That along with the incredible tension of leaving a permanent record of your failures made for a winning combination.
Gloomhaven has taken this even further, with a sprawling, branching, narrative that will take a ludicrous number of hours to explore fully. While the central storyline is perhaps not as strong as that of Pandemic Legacy (in my opinion, and so far) Gloomhaven has given us a living, breathing world to explore. I want to spend time in it. I want to see the results of my little story choices play out on the larger world, and while the role playing element is mechanically limited in scope, I still want to see my Innox Brute achieve his objective and retire. The game has taken on its own narrative.
Scythe is another game that is embedded deeply in its own world, and what a world that is. A World War One diesel punk reimagining of Eastern European history, it feels like something that extends beyond the one game of it you are playing. And that’s because it does. The world of Scythe was created by its artist, Jakob Rozalski, long before the board game was designed. This allowed the game to sink into an already rich world, and Scythe leverages that wherever it can, making full use of its striking artwork to tell stories for it, most clearly in the encounter cards.
Star Wars Rebellion has likewise done an incredible job (by all accounts) of capturing its setting, in this case the licensed Star Wars Universe. Having such a big name IP has obviously done wonders for drawing in players, but only by living up to the expectations that IP brings with it has it reached the dizzying heights of BGG stardom. By focussing on a different kind of experience to 2014’s also successful Star Wars Imperial Assault, Rebellion could achieve even greater success in the same universe without infringing on this pre-existing title.
Mansions of Madness 2nd Edition does similarly in the world of H. P. Lovecraft, although this time there was no license to buy (the Cthulhu Mythos is a publicly available setting, which is why there are so damn many Cthulhu games on Kickstarter). Mansions of Madness was always focused on story telling, but had some tragic clunkiness that got in the way. The second edition’s move to an app based system allowed the story to take centre stage, and no longer required a human player to control the house and monsters. Everyone around the table could experience the story together.
Even more traditional games are pushing strong themes. Terraforming Mars grounds itself in a near future sci-fi universe that achieves a fantastic degree of believability. That real focus on its theme is in my opinion one of its greatest achievements and, I believe, one of the key reasons for its success.
Look outside the top 30 and you’ll find that surprisingly often the most well regarded games of a particular theme are those that lean into the stories those games can tell. The highest rated zombie game is Dead of Winter, for whom the zombies are merely a backdrop for character driven stories and experiences, especially thanks to those Crossroads cards. In the Cthulhu Mythos of which there are certainly no shortage of games, Mansions of Madness and Arkham Horror The Card Game have risen to the top, both of which use clever mechanics to really tell stories. For Sherlock Holmes, see Consulting Detective. This isn’t true for all themes, but maybe that’s only because those games haven’t been invented yet?
Blood Rage and Mechs vs Minions almost fit my narrative. Blood Rage certainly feels like a battle for the end times in Viking mythology, albeit using some more gamey/less thematic mechanics too (drafting?) Likewise Mechs vs Minions was built by the League of Legends folks to be set in their universe. It even features campaign style play, with a linked series of scenarios to play through. But it sounds like a mechanical experience first, neither exemplifying the League of Legends world nor driving a particular narrative story in the same way that Pandemic Legacy did. But it’s not one I’ve had chance to play.
There will always be exceptions. Through the Ages is probably less thematic than the others (I haven’t had the chance to play it either), but it’s the second edition of an already very well regarded game, that had been in the top 5 for years previously. 7 Wonders Duel is fairly classic euro material, Codenames is theme light but, you know, it’s Codenames. There is certainly still room for mechanically excellent games to make their way up the ladder despite a lack of, or merely a “classical”/”traditional,” board game theme. But novel settings and, in particular, actual stories, are capturing gamer’s imaginations to a degree we’ve just not seen before.
How do we as designers go about emulating these success stories? Let’s take a closer look at the core themes I’ve noticed from the overview above.
Or, a pre written story. The players experience that story as they play, unlocking new pieces of it as they progress. You can see this strongly in Pandemic Legacy, in Mansions of Madness, in Gloomhaven. This has been incredibly successful where implemented, but is probably the hardest to achieve. Not only must you as the designer create an enjoyable game to play, you must write an exciting story too. These are quite different skill sets!
They also force you into difficult design challenges. Do you force your players to commit to a multi game campaign? Do you allow them to drop in and out? But doing so compromises their experience of the story you are trying to tell. Do you use episodic adventures like TIME Stories and Mansions of Madness? These limit the scope of your story. Can you make your game replayable? Common wisdom would once have said no one would accept the limited replay ability of a TIME stories case yet, clearly, they do! But it still puts off many players.
That’s before you even figure out how to integrate the story into the game’s mechanics. You might spread it out over several “scenarios”, each bookended by some advancement of the overall narrative with the core gameplay experience affected by it, but not really the core story telling element. This is the approach of campaign games like Pandemic Legacy, Gloomhaven and others. Or the scenario itself is the story. In TIME stories you reveal cards from the decks in order to discover new things and advance it. In Mansions of Madness, the app reveals story elements at the appropriate times, with player actions affecting the rate of progress, or the final outcome.
This approach to game design is not for the feint of heart, but done well it has proven spectacularly successful.
One of the core elements of the “Legacy” system are the hidden boxes and envelopes that reveal new components and even mechanics you can add to the game. These are incredible motivators for players to keep playing – everyone wants to see what comes out of those boxes! They also have an interesting effect to watch out for: players will play in ways to accelerate the opening of these boxes to get at the contents sooner. Therefore, care has to be taken when deciding on the conditions that allow players to open those boxes.
The idea of hidden components goes much further than Legacy boxes though and is essential to creating a narrative. Somehow, you need a way of “hiding” the story, of ensuring that players experience things in the “right” order. The scenario style structure of Gloomhaven, say, only requires you to avoid reading ahead. TIME Stories has surprises hidden in its decks of cards, Mansions of Madness has it hidden in the app. Since Tales of the Arabian Nights we’ve had the idea of a book of stories, where at certain points you turn to the relevant entry and read aloud. That game, however, didn’t have a clear narrative arc, rather allowing a collection of discrete events to create a kind of story by itself.
A narrative is exciting when we don’t know for sure what is going to happen next. This requires something to remain hidden from the players. But a great narrative is also coherent, with later events following logically from those in the past. To create this coherency, how those hidden elements are revealed needs careful consideration.
Not all the games I’ve discussed above needed to tell narrative stories. As I’ve said, the creation of a unique story in a new world is incredibly hard to do. It is enough to give players an exciting world to explore. But of all the games in that list, only Gloomhaven exists in a world the designer created from scratch, though I know Scythe’s world was heavily expanded during development of the game. Instead, the others made use of licenses (unfortunately rather too expensive for most of us!) or worlds given life by others.
H. P. Lovecraft’s universe has proven a fertile breeding ground for games over the years, Blood Rage is set within the world of Norse Mythology, obviously the Star Wars games make full use of their IP. Using an existing world, if popular enough, gives you an audience. But more importantly that world constrains and guides your design. There are plenty of generic Lovecraft games, few that do that theme justice. It’s not enough to merely have an interesting theme, the best games bind themselves completely to those themes.
Why are these worlds and games so powerful and compelling? Because when a game really does a good job of representing its setting, the gameplay and theming build one another up in a coherent experience. When they don’t mesh, those two elements rub up against each other and create a kind of cognitive dissonance, like seeing stage hands moving the scenery in the theatre. Fortunately board gamers are pretty good at suspending their disbelief, we are playing with cardboard pieces after all, so when a game is able to engage us fully within its theme then it feels that much more special.
The real world
To extend the above discussion, a special case of theming is to embed the game within the real world. I dare say a major contributing factor to the success of Twilight Struggle, the previous BGG number 1, was in its incredible reimagining of the Cold War, it’s tensions and its history. Thus many games are set in the present day (Pandemic Legacy), the near future (Terraforming Mars) or more commonly, in history (Through the Ages, 7 Wonders Duel).
The obvious advantage of these settings is that they are so much easier for everyone to understand. We all live in the real world (well, most of us do…) and most of us have at least a general understanding of history. Plus, for the detail oriented designer there is generally a wealth of resources out there on these subjects. That can be a blessing and a curse, as where those designing a Lord of the Rings game can get away with enjoying a few films and novels, studying the history of a period can mean dealing with rather dryer material!
The power of high quality artwork is amazing, and you only have to look at Scythe to see that. When it comes to world building, it is invaluable. No paragraph of flavour text in a rulebook or token sentence on a card can create a world as rich and exciting as a single image. And no game, in my experience, has achieved more with its art than Scythe. That box cover launched its Kickstarter on its own. Inside the game, the Encounter cards tell all their story with their art, while at the same time giving you another window on the world.
Knowing the limits
In many ways, Scythe does not explore its world in any depth. Those incredible vignettes only give you a glance, snapshots of a world. A small piece of backstory sets up the game (typical for board games). There isn’t an in depth explanation of the social political climate of Scythe’s world, and it doesn’t need one. It uses its art to create a fascinating backdrop, it’s mechanics to explain a few key interactions between elements of the world, and leaves the rest up to our imaginations. Would it be a better game if it had all these details worked out? I doubt it.
Modern fandom seems to demand perfectly explained and constructed worlds. Why didn’t the Hobbits just take the Eagles to Mordor? But that’s not necessary to create an enjoyable story, or an engaging and exciting world. The key is to create the impression of a wider universe, to have a coherent understanding of the core processes your game is playing with, and how they affect your world, baked into the game, and to give enough information for your players to fill in the blanks.
There will always be a place for good gameplay but good gameplay alone is no longer enough to reach the greatest heights. Combining theme and mechanics has been considered the highest form of game design for quite some time now, but we are reaching a point where games are going beyond even that. We are building worlds to explore and we are telling real, coherent stories. The art of creating those worlds is going to become an ever more valuable skill for the budding game designer. I, for one, can’t wait to see what we come up with!