Book Review: Boardgames That Tell Stories

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that Ignacy Trzewiczek is one of the most interesting characters in the modern board gaming world. He burst onto the scene about 10 years ago with games like Neuroshima Hex, Stronghold, and 51st State, and then cemented his reputation as an excellent game designer with the acclaimed Robinson Crusoe: Adventures On The Cursed Island.

Ignacy is also one of the most outspoken figures in our little world, and he’s been sharing his thoughts on his blog “Boardgames That Tell Stories” since 2011. The book of the same name is a compilation of many of those blog posts, along with some additional essays and stories from notable game designers such as Vlaada Chvatil and Antoine Bauza.

As it’s a series of blog posts, there’s not a lot of continuity between each chapter, although some themes emerge. The first thing you’ll notice is Ignacy’s direct, sometimes blunt, style of writing. He prefers short, clipped sentences and he doesn’t parse his words. If he is talking about a game in development that needs to be improved, he’ll say that it sucks. If he’s talking about one of his games around release, he proudly declares that, at that time, he thinks it’s the greatest game ever made. (That confidence inevitably fades, of course). Sometimes the writing is simply grammatically incorrect, undoubtedly due to English not being Ignacy’s first language. I feel bad pointing that out, because I can’t speak any other languages, and my own English leaves a lot to be desired. I’d rather have writing with personality over dull, schoolbook-correct writing any day of the week, anyway.

And personality is something Boardgames That Tell Stories has in spades. In fact, for a while I couldn’t quite figure out if the book was an interesting portrait of a sometimes-controversial figure, or simply grating with its directness. I settled on the former, but get used to Ignacy framing everything in absolutes–a game is either horrible or perfect, a design decision is either brilliant or garbage, and Ignacy himself is either an idiot or a master of his craft. I think this kind of rhetoric comes from Ignacy’s unbridled enthusiasm for games rather than pure arrogance. It’s a very particular kind of enthusiasm not only for games themselves, but an enthusiasm that drives him to create and to beat every other designer in the market. When he talks about games that didn’t do particularly well in the market, you can feel the bitterness underneath. Conversely, there’s a tremendous amount of pride for the games like Robinson Crusoe that did well.

The topics mostly cover the design and development of Portal games from 51st state through Robinson Crusoe. The timeline seems to bounce around, while following the progression of time in a very broad sense. I suspect this is because the chapters were published in the same order as the blog posts, and those posts weren’t necessarily about what was happening currently. Ignacy spends a lot of time talking about frustrations and breakthroughs in designing and playtesting in general terms. You’ll get some specifics (standout: a chapter about struggling with a particular mechanism in Robinson Crusoe after Vlaada Chvatil says the game is too punishing), but I frequently became frustrated with how much detail was left out. More time is spent trying (and usually succeeding) to weave in more humor.

A lot of the book, then, is about the emotional journey of game design and development. You’ll get stories about being stuck in a design, about being stubborn about the balance of factions in 51st state, and about how exhausting and rewarding Essen is. For each game the same cycle of frustration, pride, exhaustion, stubbornness, and success repeats itself. I found it tiring, and it took me much longer than it should have to complete the book because I simply didn’t want to read about the same things over and over. Ignacy is an interesting character, but his endless enthusiasm and energy translates into prose that’s exhausting.

I found relief when ⅔ through the book suddenly pivoted into stories from other game designers, with Ignacy only providing (again) enthusiastic and informative introductions for each author. I found these stories to be the highlight of the book, if only because they added variety and some time away from Ignacy himself. The latter half of the book is highlighted as a Kickstarter bonus, though it’s available in the regular kindle edition I got from Amazon. If it’s going to be included in the book anyway, I would have much preferred that the contributions from other people be sprinkled in throughout the book instead of piled up at the end.

Nevertheless, they’re all there, and they’re mostly interesting. Again, they are better at giving you a peek into the thought processes and personalities of the designers themselves rather than providing a lot valuable insight into game design.

For aspiring game designers, I think the main message you’ll receive from Boardgames That Tell Stories is one of perseverance. Ignacy is a perfectionist with his designs (though not his rulebooks, which he hates writing), and he is abundantly driven. Many people will probably find reading this book inspirational on that front. I’m the kind of person who, unfortunately, can’t seem jump into that style of self-motivation. I do things slowly and deliberately, and I have too much self-doubt. So when I tell you that I found the book somewhat interesting, but largely tiresome, know that may reflect more on me than the book itself. But, most of the book is available freely online, anyway. If you want Ignacy Trzewiczek, unfiltered, read the blog. Fans might find the book a worthwhile purchase.


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