Storytelling in Games: What about Board Games?

I have one last follow-up to my recent posts about storytelling in games, and then I promise to move on to other topics. Despite my interest in how games can advance stories, I haven’t brought up my preferred medium of board games. The reason is simple: I don’t have any reason to believe that board (or card, etc) games are a good venue for storytelling.

Quite simply, an interactive story depends on the participant(s) trying to guide the events but accepting that a force outside of them is in control. In a computer game, that force is a complex program that can send players through all sorts of paths and consider everything that has gone before when calculating the next event. In a traditional role-playing game, that force is another person, who has planned out a myriad of possibilities and adapts them to the players’ choices. In some more experimental role-playing games, that force is a group consensus, who may not have prepared a story but do have a shared agreement that cooperating to advance the story is the chief goal.

In contrast, a board game is ultimately about who wins and who loses. Maybe there’s one winner, maybe there are teams, or maybe everyone cooperates, but in the end the theme and actions are just fluff. It can definitely enhance the game, but the more you play games, the better you get at looking past that and focusing on the underlying mechanics. I’d say that that’s a contrast to most RPGs, where the people who play them all the time are the most invested in the story. (Even D&D min-maxers are ultimately going to remember the story of how they single-handedly slayed a dragon, not just the loophole that got their strength to 50.)

Most stories are meant to be experienced just once, unless they change each time or are good enough to “re-read”. (Some computer games skirt this rule, but that means that the person is playing it for the game instead of for the story.) In contrast, board games are intended to be played repeatedly. If you tried to design a game full of “plot twists”, they’d either be predictable by the second time you played them, or rely on a lot of random chance. And while many board games do throw randomized plot elements at you, they just feel arbitrary to me. Unlike a computer game or a human moderator, the board game’s plot changes are going to be completely random. They can’t calculate the new status based on previous events, unless the algorithm to do that is part of the rules the players all know about. And in that case, it’s just one more game element to be manipulated by the winner. If players are expected to cooperatively tell a story without just focusing on winning or losing, then by definition it stops being a board game and becomes a role-playing game.

Perhaps a game could have cards or books complex enough to offer unpredictable but fair stories in the same way that computer games are programmed to do. I can’t imagine a way to do that that wouldn’t be prohibitively expensive. More practically, I could see a limited pre-planned campaign providing a story along with a decent amount of replayability. If so, that probably wouldn’t fit my group of friends who meet up in different configurations all the time. (Legends of Andor may do that, but just last month I dismissed it as something that wouldn’t make it to my table.)

If you do want to come up with a theoretical way to add stories to board games, I’d suggest looking at the rare games that can provoke actual emotional reactions. These often accomplish it with techniques (like player elimination) that are considered bad design today. I do have a soft spot for social games like Werewolf, though. These let people take on roles and move towards long-term goals in ways that are more circuitous than standard board games. It’s a long way from there to having an emergent plot, though; People definitely tell stories about memorable Werewolf games, but they tend to be very focused on the mechanics.

For now, I’m going to stick to my claim that stories don’t work in board games. The players are too directly involved in the heart of the game mechanics, leaving no mysterious force to bridge the game between storytelling and trying to win. Fortunately, I don’t think that games have to have stories to be good. I’m just glad that there are so many varieties of games out there to meet so many different needs.

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