Further Thoughts on Macro-Theming

I’ve received some great comments in response to last week’s article about micro- and macro-theming. After considering them I don’t think I explained the idea of macro-thematic as well as I had wanted. I’m going to take this article to go into a bit more detail and to offer some other tangential thoughts related to the subject that might serve as seeds for future articles.

One comment I got discussed a game design that the author was working on, and they said it was macro-thematic because, “all of the actions that characters in this setting would be doing based on the premise of the game are actions available to the players”. While this could indeed create an effective macro-thematic experience, it does not necessarily do so. This is because the suggestion that the actions the characters in the game-fiction are doing are available to the players is false (assuming this is a “normal” board game and not some kind of LARP-hybrid thing). 

When we perform an action in a board game, more often than not, we are not doing anything remotely close to what the player avatars are doing in the game-fiction. In the game our characters charged forward with their weapons and slew an orc. In reality the people at the table rolled dice, moved cardboard pieces, and did some mental math. The cinematic scene that plays out exists entirely within the minds of the players. When done well this is called immersion.

To inspire immersion the designer must translate the intended experience via the parts of a board game. What are those parts? There are physical components, which can help people visualize what is happening or inspire a certain mood. Certainly that’s the intended effect with minis, though I’ve found that they’re particularly vulnerable to losing their immersive effect if the rest of the game doesn’t support them well. 

Art can have a fantastic mood-setting effect on the game but again relies on the continued support of the game mechanisms to maintain that effect. Board game art is too fragmented by its very nature to sustain immersion by itself. Similarly, written stories or flavor text can support a world and a narrative but fade away quickly if they’re detached from the rest of the game.

All of these pieces–sculpture, visual art, and the written word–outside of the context of a board game can inspire the imagination and stand up by themselves as a complete artistic statement. But place them within the context of a game and they become supporting players in trying to create the experience of the game. If you engaged in a scavenger hunt in The Louvre you’d miss out on a lot unless you deliberately exited the headspace of the scavenger hunt.

What’s the core driver of the board game experience, then? Choices. Choices and consequences. The presentation (or avoidance!) of choice, in my view, is the core of board gaming. There are exceptions, and I’ll get to them later, but for most games the story unfolds as a series of discrete decision points followed by consequences for whatever decisions are made. This pattern creates a narrative–a causal chain of events that our brains love to string together into what we call stories.

But story creation isn’t sufficient for immersion. We can witness a story as a separate thing happening entirely outside of our emotional investment and still recognize that it’s a story. The choices in the game, however, we cannot escape. We interact with them directly, all of the time, so they hold great influence over our experience.

How do choices in games influence us? Well, there’s the type of choice presented. Is it a binary decision, or are there many different options? Is the decision complex and multi-layered or simple and one-note? Are the choices between different ways to produce and grow or between methods of trying to prevent regression? Are they complex or simple? Context matters too. Does the game allow a lot of strategic forethought, or does the game state change a lot between turns, creating a more tactical experience? How far-reaching are the consequences of the choices? How potentially harmful to your position? Are the consequences obscured through layers of uncertainty or will you be able to trace the game back in a deterministic way?

Let’s look at some examples of what I see as fantastic macro-theming. If you’re familiar with The Thoughtful Gamer this won’t come as a surprise, but I’m going to begin with Twilight Struggle. I can think of four very apparent ways in which it puts the players in the headspace of the US or Soviet leader during the Cold War.

First, the DEFCON track provides incentives for each player to push the world towards the brink of nuclear annihilation because the most powerful basic action in the game (the coup action) lowers DEFCON. Second, the “domino theory” is implemented mechanically, so you’re always thinking about pivotal regional targets when you’re trying to spread influence. Third, you’re always managing potential crises because you frequently are forced to play cards that benefit your opponent. You’re also constantly thinking about what cards they might have in hand and how different possibilities might affect your choices. Finally, Twilight Struggle illustrates a kind of moral flattening where all other considerations are pushed aside in service of winning the Cold War. The entire Korean and Vietnam wars are represented by single cards, just like everything else. All of this combines to create an exquisitely thematic experience.

But consider how well this works despite the fact that the actual game flow looks nothing like what the actual heads of state were doing. Instead of a closer 1 to 1 abstraction of the sorts of decisions they’d be making, the game instead chooses to focus on the emotions of the decisions. There’s no troop movement at all in Twilight Struggle, for instance. And when you think about it, the idea that the Soviets would, for instance, have the idea of NATO in front of them and the power to influence when it’s created (within a particular time-band), is a bit silly. But that doesn’t matter. It’s the lie that illuminates the truth.

I’m reminded of a horror RPG I heard of once where players must play a turn of Jenga whenever they do something risky in the game. The setting of the game, as far as I’m aware, has nothing to do with towers or stacking or Jenga itself. But a turn of Jenga is physical and tense. When you’re at an important, scary moment in the story you’re less likely to successfully Jenga that wood block successfully (yes I turned Jenga into a verb). As the game progresses and the tower becomes more precarious it’s harder still! It’s not about what the choice represents literally, but emotionally.

I made a similar argument when I wrote about why puzzly adventure games work best. The story of a hero is one about overcoming odds through grit and smarts. Difficult, crunchy decision-making evokes that better than dice chucking. Although dice chucking does evoke a different kind of story, one of fate battering around people as they reckon with forces beyond their control. Both are interesting.

Real time games have the easiest path to immersion because they literally create time pressure and panic in settings about time pressure and panic. 

Let’s end, again, on Scythe. It does a great job of abstracting down the actions your game avatar is doing into game mechanisms. However I don’t think it’s very successful in a macro-thematic sense, even though I do find it, ultimately, quite fun. You have worker pieces that perform tasks. You can move them geographically. They gather resources, and you can use those resources to build things and advance your technology. All of this tracks, but the game doesn’t feel like what it’s supposed to represent.

I see two fundamental causes. First, Scythe is a low-interaction race. It’s about finding chains of actions that most efficiently accomplish certain preordained goals (upgrading mechs, building buildings, etc). This doesn’t reflect the militaristic, impoverished, war-torn setting we see in the art. The mechanisms might feel more at home in a setting about rival state of the art tech companies or something like that.

Second, the staccato rhythm of Scythe drains it of weight. In order to make the game playable at 6 players each turn is reduced to performing a very simple, single action. This works from a playability standpoint as it both limits the amount of downtime between turns and fills the downtime you do have with lots of planning as you mentally chart a string of 3 or more actions at a time in order to accomplish anything. However, this game rhythm is quick and nimble–incongruent with the game-fiction where you’re marching behemoth mechs, building small empires, and scouting lands unknown.

Despite giving the players the opportunity to “do” what we would reasonably expect their avatars to do in the game-fiction, Scythe doesn’t evoke the associated feelings. It contains all of the notes but doesn’t make any music. Being successfully macro-thematic often isn’t a matter of having the appropriate actions for the setting abstracted down into board game mechanisms, but of trying to capture the emotions and decision-spaces of the setting.

A game starts as an idea. That idea then gets reduced down into components and rules and player choices. As the player plays their mind and imagination starts to fill with their own ideas about the game and its setting. But communicating from your mind through the game into someone else’s mind isn’t always a straight path, much like how the most effective stories aren’t simply a dry telling of the facts, or how the most effective paintings aren’t necessarily the most “realistic” looking. In board games it’s about finding the nature of the choice, not the image of it.

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