How Board Games Communicate

This article is sort of a continuation of this article from last week, inspired by discussions on twitter mostly located here and here.

I made two claims in last week’s article that I want to dive into more deeply. The first is that board games communicate ideas. The second is that they do so in a less precise and focused manner than other forms of media. I’ll stand by both of those statements, though I think there are some fascinating complications.

The primary complication, of course, is that board games are played. In the twitter discussion a comparison to theater was made, but that doesn’t quite work as a play is scripted while board games are much more open-ended. Plays are interpreted, of course, and some playwrights allow for more interpretation with their text (like Shakespeare with his sparse stage directions). But even then there are lines and lyrics and such that need to be said to actually perform the play. 

Board games are not so strict. They set parameters for the participants but otherwise let them make choices that collectively guide that particular play of the game in significant ways. Insofar as those choices are made in the pursuit of self-expression, creativity, or storytelling we might make a comparison to improvisational theater, but we’d also be entering the realm of RPGs and leaving the board game space. Or, at the very least, leaving an assumption of competition, which comes built into most board games and seems much less important to most RPGs. 

If everyone around the tables assumes a minimal level of competitive effort, either against each other or the mechanisms of the game, they’ve established a framework of play that stretches away from the theater metaphor in a significant way.

But people can stray from that assumption, and I think there’s a lot of space to do interesting things with it. Deviating away from the idea of competing or success as defined by the game can create entirely new experiences. It can be an act of criticism itself, or an act of design and creation (perhaps with “house rules”). I also think board games can explore spaces in-between, where the idea of what “winning” means is toyed with, but I’ll get to that in more detail in a future article.

Regardless, there are some structural differences between board games and theater adaptations that makes the comparison a bit tenuous. I don’t think games can intentionally communicate ideas and themes with the level of specificity that a script can. That doesn’t mean that games can’t communicate, however, as they do have some unique advantages.

Specifically, games are great at communicating ideas about systems, because they are, in and of themselves, systems. A board game is a scaffolding of rules and incentives directing behavior. They can therefore attempt to simulate, speculate, and critique how non-game systems similarly direct behavior. They can turn the focus on the players and their choices, causing them to analyze the incentives that resulted in that choice being made.

For instance, a simple war game like Risk sees war as a simple matter of different sides seeking total dominion through the accumulation of resources. A COIN game questions those assumptions by creating a more complex web of ideas and incentives for the players, reflecting a particular analysis for why different factions go to war, and why they may have fundamentally different goals in the conflict. Agricola and Nusfjord, both from the same designer, are about investment, growth, and community, but paint completely different pictures for what that can look like. Games like Battlestar Galactica and Mantis Falls can brew paranoia through the careful regulation of information.

Through playing a board game, one can discover moments of beauty, elegance, surprise, delight, frustration, serenity, suspense, etc. The game allows for these experiences, and may have been designed to try to create some of them, but they’re only developed through the play of the players. This is what I mean by board games being less precise than other media. They bring a framework to the table, but that’s filled out by play. 

I think there’s a lot of value in teasing out the game’s (and by extension the designer/artists/developers) role in accommodating these player experiences. That’s part of the challenges of reviewing board games in particular: you need to try to understand what the game specifically brought to the table to create the experience you had. Was it an aberration, or is that experience common and driven by some aspect of the game’s design? 

So even though I think board games are not as good of a tool for expressing precise, complex themes, they can be amazing at people’s relationships with different sorts of systems. Because we engage with games in a more fundamental way, we become part of their artistic expression. Sure, all experience, including watching a play or reading a book, is filtered, to some degree, subjectively, but playing a game is an entirely new level of back and forth between creation and consumer. It’s in that engagement that we can learn a lot about systems, psychology, creativity, and all of the things that make games so fascinating.

Next week I’ll look at different ways we might analyze games to understand and appreciate them better.

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