There’s a lot you can say about the things that are board games.
Back when I regularly wrote a blog about game design (before moving my focus to podcasts), I would often get microscopic in my focus on a game. Indeed, I once wrote a piece about one aspect of the turn order of firefighting co-op Flashpoint. It ran to 4000 words over two parts. It’s no surprise that I am entirely convinced that there is a limitless amount to be written about the specifics of the things that games are.
And why not? As well as rich in depth for game design nerds like me, games are lovely things to write about. Many games today are now truly art objects. From the tastefully produced box to the colourful, gorgeous assembled object on the table, they’ve become an aesthetic experience before even being played. The more gorgeous they are, the more intensely they fire up the imagination: an idealized vision of all the future games we will play with them. A recapitulation of our previous memories, of all the times we’ve enjoyed before - sharing a laugh, a contest, or the sweet, quiet camaraderie with those close to us. Even opening a box and seeing all these wonderful components of an as-yet-unplayed game, its components still un-punched calls to us with all that potential - the deep-seated, biologically hardwired desire to share those moments of joy with the tribe.
It is fair to say that lovers of board games - much more than video gamers - think more in social potential. Whatever advances there have been in boardgame apps or tabletop simulators, we know they are all pale imitations. We know we really want physical togetherness. And yet they are perhaps still as a group - like many inveterate problem solvers - still seeing so much through the lens of things. It is things that are to gamers generative - to which all credit is given to experience: the things are good or bad at this player count. Succeeding at victory criteria established by the thing is actually important. It is the rules of this specific thing that I delegate the power to make me happy or sad. It’s important we don’t just arbitrarily house rule how the thing for something as frivolous as feeling better that way; the delicate balancing of the machine must not be upset.
And yet, what feeble forces are things like rules, set against the currents of a player’s life?
Games today may now be considered collectables. But sky high shelves of unplayed games were never really investment assets - they are rarely ever bought for something so cynical and crass. For the hobby gamers, they are something far more beautiful: the wonderful triumph of hope over experience. Each is a boxed-up vision of a moment that might never happen: the awkward 3 player title that can’t be played at home with your partner and never quite makes it to a friend’s house. The long games of table-sprawling monsters lost to youth with their impossible time demands in a life with responsibilities. That campaign game you really need to get the same group of people together for but there’s always someone not free on Saturday. The game you’d love to play after work, but it's rapidly losing its battle with Netflix as you shrink into the sofa. Was the game objectively unbalanced and luck driven? Or did the player just have a bad day because they don’t always get to make the choices they’d like to make in daily life? Is the game too taxing… or is your brain just too fried from work these days to give it thought its systems demand? Did I love that game for its own cleverness or tension, or is it just great to see my friend again after so many months?
As time has gone by, this is where I find my thoughts drifting. It’s one thing to make objects that live in the theoretical space of the playtesting table where anything is possible, but the reality of people’s lives are imposed on games all the time. To really, really succeed as more than just a beautiful vision of what it could be, to actually get played - to bring its promise to life - a game really needs to serve a moment in the current of the player’s life. Made for a moment - maybe even to improve a moment - is where the power of a great game lies.
Indeed it was only many months into working on my most recent game that it began dawning on me on why *I* liked it so much. I was pleased with the mechanics, the general direction of the art to Game Jam, a game about making games. It was appealing and tested very well. But more importantly, I started to really discover what this mad little card game, gave me exactly what *I* needed from it.
It’s a short game, only 25 minutes or so but it uniquely combines two elements: an optimisation puzzle where you’re pushing your luck to use various levers to score as many points as possible and a storytelling round where you try to pitch your strongest game concept to the other players. As someone who wants their brain to be pushed, I love what gamers have come to loosely term “crunchiness”: I want proper problems to solve that involve multiple steps. I want meaningful choices. I actually want the agony of at least two closely balanced options. But I also love a performance, and I love anything that brings people a bit out of their shells and helps them be creative. After a long day at work - even in the immeasurably privileged position of actually working in games - I want that crunch. But I just can’t handle something hefty like Brass in that moment. Similarly, you can nearly always sign me-up for some improvisation, but at the end of a long day my batteries just don’t permit being permanently entertaining. I am social, but I am not the wild-eyed extrovert who keeps picking up momentum the longer the party continues
Similarly at the start of a game evening - especially with people who don’t know each other too well - what I want most of all is something I know everyone will have a good time with. I also want a tool to break the ice and encourage people a little bit out of their shells. Once again, I started to notice that this little game was perfect. A natural, stealthy icebreaker with a bit of something for everyone. A particular moment, perfectly served - for me at least. We’ll see if others feel the same.
Maybe all of this is obvious to people much smarter than me. Games are increasingly beautiful things (long may it continue) but the more we focus on moments the better we can make the games serve them. After all - it’s those moments that make life worth living.
by James Naylor