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Board Game Diary: What Makes a Great Game?

Dear Board Game Diary,

Your toe taps with anticipation as you grip the perfect combination of cards in your hand that will inevitably devastate the competition. Your turn arrives and you brace for what will be your crowning moment. Each card drops to the table with the weight of a brick, followed by a rush of adrenaline as your plan comes to fruition. The faces of your opponents, filled with incredulity and awe, only adds fuel to the already beaming smile plastered on yours. You have found the mark of a great game.

We, as board game enthusiasts, have all felt these experiences while playing the games we love. It’s that moment we strive to find and where our addiction to board games lies. The perfect storm of consequence, luck, and skill culminating in that all too familiar rush of excitement. This feeling doesn’t come easily though. Often a board game will come to the table with our high hopes of being the next best thing, then leave the table with your ambivalence and disappointment. The question that remains is what was missing from this game? What makes a board game truly great? Let me count the ways.

Narrative Driven Play

Entertainment media like TV, movies, and books all have the ability to carry us away on amazing adventures. Their only limits are the bounds of the author’s imagination. We use these forms of entertainment as a means of escapism: a safe and open space where one can roam free within our own imagination as we witness our favorite character’s exploits. The one fault of these forms of entertainment is the lack of interaction. This is where a great board game can pick up the pieces (Pun intended).

Vibrant imagery, immersive locales, and enchanting characters can be found in many forms of media, but with a board game, you are able to interact with these characters. At times, you’re able to become this persona and act out their adventures. The popular tabletop roleplaying game of Dungeon and Dragons comes to mind as the best example. Players create unique characters and ,with them, dive head first into a world of their own design. They can be the very character they want to be without the threat of repercussion (devious as this may be). It is the very definition of escapism. Though many would say this isn’t a board game per se, I find they hold many commonalities.

Some board games will paint a beautiful backdrop of a world just as creative as the ones in a Dungeon and Dragons game. Every corner of the game including the artwork, components, and mechanics are drenched in its theme. All of which with the intent of pulling the players away from their daily lives and into the designer’s imagination. This immersion of theme and narrative is crucial when it comes to a memorial experience. The stories we develop through play are what the players truly remember rather than some frivolous, forgettable game.

An example of this can be displayed in almost every game from Red Raven Games. The company was founded by artist and game designer, Ryan Laukat. He designs most of the games from Red Raven and does all of the artwork as well. His style of art can only be described as whimsical and enchanting which goes hand-in-hand with his narrative-driven gameplay designs. Each picture he draws is chock-full of little narrative details that leave the players with the desire to know more. A couple of his games even take this narrative style to the extreme with games like Above and Below and Near and Far. These self-described “Storytelling” games, plunge players into the World of Arzium which carries its own history that is told through a series of their games. This world is flush with specific characters, places, and stories that are sure to stick into one’s memory.

Near and Far from Red Raven Games

Experience Enhancing Mechanics

At the bare minimum, a board game’s mechanics should be functional. Rarely, do I find that a published board game simply doesn’t work but it has happened. This, however, isn’t the only thing a great game needs. These mechanics and rules must contribute to a memorable experience, immersed with excitement, intrigue, and tension.

This is difficult to attain as the functionality of a game has little to do with its gameplay experience. Rules set the structure of a game but it is the players that dictate how those rules become the game. Obviously, playtesting of a game system would be paramount in this regard. The subtle nuanced interactions between the players and the game system are something that cannot be planned.

This is harder to explain but easy to demonstrate with examples. One of which would be Bohnanza. A seemingly simple game of trading and selling of beans: innocuous, dry, and boring. It’s when the gameplay begins that this game can either shine or fall miserably flat dependent solely on the players interacting with it. Players that choose to utilize the full extent of the games trading ruleset find an immense web of politics, social engineering, bluffing, and salesmanship. These aspects, that the players flesh out and not the game itself, can often bring the table to a loud roar. Trade deals being spout off from every corner of the table with everything at stake. A gaming experience enhanced merely from a few simple rules.

Bohnanza from Rio Grande Games

Dynamic Gameplay

Too often do board games fall into the realm of mediocrity with linear gameplay. The all too common board game objective of getting somewhere first by doing this one thing repetitively and you win. Rinse and repeat. I feel this is partially the reason for the lack of enthusiasm for new players to try modern board games but this may be a topic for a new day: I digress. A mark of a great game doesn’t follow this mundane roadmap of gameplay design and attempts something greater. I’m referring to dynamic gameplay.

When you sit down to play a game the rules are explained and you begin with the typical question on every player’s mind. How do I win? This is followed by a series of choices that you make in order to make it to your objective.

Though this seems very straight forward, many games take a versatile approach to this question. The proverb “there is more than one way to skin a cat” comes to mind. The designers of great games know that gameplay without a multitude of ways to play and feasibly win can become a forgettable experience as those games are solvable. Like a puzzle, you just need to know where to put all the pieces. This results in fewer plays and less entertainment value.

A dynamic gameplay experience will provide you with a wealth of options for you to explore. Options that can be taken in any order on your path to victory but it is those in-game circumstances that make those decisions relevant and thoughtful. Providing a gameplay fingerprint, if you will, that is unique to your play style and this game session specifically.

I cannot think of a better example of dynamic gameplay than A Feast for Odin. A standard worker placement game with more options than you can fathom. 62 different locations to place workers and 190 different occupation cards can be insanity on a players ability to make a decision but this game does just that. With so many options in front of each player, the path at which players can take in order to win is almost endless. Each game feels fresh with different obstacles, opportunities, and unexplored paths. the sense of discovery never seems to be quashed.

A Feast for Odin by Z-Man Games

Why do we continue our search for that next great game? We have so many to choose from yet we choose to wade through the heaps of chits and dice to find the special something. Perhaps it’s that promise of something greater and the grass is always greener, what have you. I, myself, love the hunt and find much enjoyment in simply that but it is always important to know that greatness isn’t something that comes easily. It is rare and I’m lucky to have found it in many of the games that we play in this group every week. I have to remind myself dust off those classics and relive those special moments these wonderful games can provide.

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