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Abstraction in Themed Board Games ~The Author M~

July 6, 2010
When you ask the average American to name a board game, most likely they’ll say Monopoly. If you asked them what Monopoly is about, you’re likely to get a few blank looks, “It’s Monopoly, you got the hotels, and you go around the board, and fight over who gets to play as the thimble.” The premise is generally solid, you claim properties and try to bankrupt your opponent (or simply play until someone gives up). There’s a lot about the game that doesn’t add up, however. If you’re a hotel mogul, why are you traveling around the board, why are you compelled to pay to stay at an opponents hotel, why are you occasionally thrown in prison?

Obviously Monopoly has a lot going for it or it wouldn’t be a cultural icon, and while it has an obvious theme it has many elements of an abstract game. To explain myself, because I’m making up a lot of this as I go, an abstract game is one that does not purport that a game mechanic is representative of something. In Poker, an Ace is an Ace you use it to form a real crappy straight. Poker is one of those games where you call a spade a spade, this is what I’m calling abstract. This is opposition to a representative game like chess. In Chess your pieces represent a kings army, when you take an opponent’s piece, you’re not just taking it off the board, you’re killing it. Representative .

There are a lot of games on the market that fall into one category or another. To be honest with ourselves, we love a game with a little metaphor in it, a representative game. Sure it may be fun to move little wooden cubes around, but it can’t compete with the image of a massive army or a horde of resources. When I play a board game, I constantly ask myself “What am I doing?”, am I building a road, running from a zombie, blowing up a base star? If I find the answer to be “I play this card so that I can move that piece from the one place to the other place” I’m not really having as much fun.

A good board game –like a good novel, movie, or video game– creates a sense of immersion. The mechanics have to somehow mesh with the imaginary world that has been constructed by the “story” of the game. Fantasy Flight Games works pretty hard at this; some of their biggest games are ones that are based off of successful intellectual properties. Battle Star Galactica, Lord of the Rings, that sort of thing. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not their successful in creating this immersion, but I will say I’ve played a couple games of BSG that felt like a season of the television series.

Some of my favorite games are ones that play like B Horror Movies, “Betrayal at House on the Hill” and “Last Night on Earth”. These are some of the games that really got me interested in board games because they draw me into their universe. In Last Night on Earth, when you roll a 1 for movement to escape the zombies, there’s a genuine fear that grips you as though you were the guy who tripped with a dozen zombies on your trail. House on the Hill is even better, it builds suspense every turn waiting for a twist, “the haunting”, a classic B horror movie trope. The games deserve entries of their so I suppose I’ll get to the point.

While there are many elements that make a great game, a big factor comes down to how well the game immerses you into what you’re doing. If I’m moving a piece around I want to know I’m doing it for a reason. (It’s why pokers a lot less interesting if you aren’t playing for money). Like anything, board games have the opportunity to tell a story, and if the board game succeeds at telling a good story, I’ll come back to it again and again. There’s a lot to be said for stomping friends and overcoming obstacles, but that’s another article. Right now? Story is awesome.

~The Author M

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