Saturday, January 11, 2014

It's All About Story

While walking about the house today waiting for the NFL playoff games to begin, an idea suddenly struck me. Wow, I thought, that would make an interesting blog post. It's been a long time since I "thought out loud" on the blog about some aspect of gaming. Maybe some other fellows might find it interesting and be able to relate? So here goes nothing!

Whenever I play a game--whether it be a board game, card game, or miniature game--I ideally want the game to tell a story. I want to feel as if the game is part of a larger narrative that we, the players, are writing.

Close the Gates, You Fools, Lest We All Perish!
Arkham Horror is an excellent example of a board game where players feel like they are characters traveling about the streets of H.P. Lovecraft's fictional city, Arkham. Foul deeds are afoot. Strange creatures are attacking. We must close the "gates," shutting off their entry points to our world before the ancient evil lurking somewhere out there awakens.

I can't believe it! We won!
Arkham Horror's theme does a fantastic job creating the game's atmosphere, while the game's mechanics lend perfectly with story telling. After all, each player is a "character" in the game. In fact, we rarely use the character's names in the game. Usually, we say "I" or "you" instead of "Harriet." We will often shout at each other, saying things like "Jeremy, close the gate!" (Jeremy being my son). We try to coordinate our actions with each other, which helps the storytelling.

To make the game even more thematic instead of random happenings, we use scenarios based on the books. Sure, we have to remove some of those wicked monster chits and other cards from our game, but the remaining monsters and cards reflect the story. It all holds together better.

I Love a Good Skirmish Game in the Morning
Like Arkham Horror, a good miniatures game should also tell a story. I guess this goes without saying when playing small-level skirmish games that are close cousins to roleplaying games, where a player controls only one to a handful of characters at most. Perhaps the player represents a small band of outlaws in the Old West, trying to rob a bank or knockover a train carrying gold from the US mint. Or maybe the player represents a team of 1960's super-spies trying to stop the latest attempt of Otto Evile and his minions to conquer the world?

Charley, you take point!
In these "roleplaying" skirmish games I want to feel emotionally attached to my main characters on the table. If I am playing the Otto Evile character, I want to feel apart of Otto and laugh maniaclly whenever possible. If I have a pack or two of minions, I want to feel nothing for them as they die easily. After all, who cares about minions? That's why they are called minions and not "Jaque Phillipe, who is married with three kids and a sheep dog." Jaque getting mowed down by a machine gun would be tragic. Minion #4 getting mowed down is just another minion. We can replace Minion #4 in time for next week's show. We'd have to go to Jaque's funeral.

To accomplish all of this, a skirmish game must have good mechanics that help attach me to my characters but not overwhelm me with irrelevant details. I do not need rules creep, where I need to track everything from my character's skill at hitting a can at 100 yards to his current blood pressure and the stopping power of a rose bush. Who cares? Just get on with the game--I mean story! Give me some crunch in my rules, such as character attributes, but not too much crunch, such as too many special rules/traits. Just like a good breakfast cereal in milk--not too soggy but not too crunchy, just right.

A Vague Idea Does Not Equal a Scenario!
I think we can agree that well-designed scenarios are also important to telling the story. After all, that is what a scenario is--the seeds of a story. All we need to do is sprinkle some water on it, adding our characters and the ensuing action. Am I right? Good scenarios are important for skirmish games.

Good sir, you've been lying down for 20 turns. Are you dead?
Yet, I cannot tell you how many absolutely horrible skirmish games I have played, and I'm sure that many other gamers have played. The gamemaster, for lack of a better word, assured us that he created this really wonderful and exciting scenario for us. He begins with:

"Ok, you guys are the bank robbers coming to rob Steve's Bank. And you guys are the lawmen trying to stop them. You guys line up on this side of the town/table, and you guys line up on that side of the town/table. Now let's get it on and start the shooting!"

Sigh. Three hours later every figure is still in the middle of the street randomly shooting at each other. Of course, I have long since tuned out of the game, being too polite to get up and leave, and am thinking only about what I want for dinner, returning to the action for a few seconds when one of my character's activation cards is drawn. "Huh, ok, yeah. Tex here tries to get back up from being knocked down the past twenty turns. [I roll dice.] Nope, still knocked down." Yep, that there is an exciting game and set of rules. (BTW this was a recurring real life experience, not a made up one! I just wish that I had had a smart phone back then with which to entertain myself during such games. Sigh.)

Ticket to Ride. Seriously?
So what is the bottom line? My favorite games always tell a story. It's why I like playing them over and over again. Even something as simple as the Ticket to Ride board game, which is nothing more than collecting sets of colored cards in order to place sets of little colored trains on a map of railroad lines, winds up telling a story, though not always the most dramatic story as in Arkham Horror. A good wargame will tell the story of a battle or struggle. For me, it's all about the story.

Your Turn!
What are some of your favorite board, card, war, or miniature games that tell a good story? Let me and others know in the comments section below. As always, comments are Captcha-free.

Go Saints!

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