For the most part I don’t like board games, though I do occasionally let myself be dragged into playing one for social reasons, owing to the substantial overlap between RPG players and board gaming, not to mention my brother-in-law being so ridiculously into board games. For me it’s kind of like, why play a board game I feel like I’m playing an RPG where something important and essential has been taken out.
In any case, the other day we tried to play Mansions of Madness, an Arkham Horror derivative from Fantasy Flight Games. We actually didn’t get that far, in part because my friend who owns the game hadn’t actually even opened the box yet, and it seems to be the kind of game where you need to read the rules beforehand. What really struck me about it though, which was something that was also true of Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition, was that in some ways the very high production values of the game worked against it. Fantasy Flight apparently loves to have games with numerous components of various kinds, especially in that thick, colorful card stock you have to punch out before you play the game. Even more so than with Warhammer, this is a game that really would’ve benefited from dropping at least some of the tokens in favor of a more RPG style way of tracking things. For example, each character has separate skill cards, a character card, item cards, and can accumulate various tokens that can represent damage and madness. The Keeper has threat tokens, time tokens, a set of threat cards, three combat decks, and I think several other things that we didn’t actually get around to even using in the game. Looking at all that stuff, I can’t help but think that you could easily halve the number of components the game involves, which would in turn speed up play simply by reducing the need to sift through all the components to find the thing you need. On top of that, at least for Mansions of Madness, the designers seem to have been strangely reticent to label any given component according to its function. It would have been nice for example if the item cards had said “Item” on their backs, not to mention if the many, many kinds of tokens had given some indication as to what they are beyond a colorful picture.
This is really interesting to me because for a while I’ve wanted to explore how RPGs can use different kinds of components in different ways, and it hadn’t occurred to me that there could be a point at which components become a burden. I’m not familiar enough with the medium of board games to know how much of this is a board game thing and how much is a Fantasy Flight thing, especially given that I even more seldom let myself get dragged into playing the more elaborate board games. However, looking at Mansions of Madness, a game with absolutely amazing production values and an $80 price tag, it’s weird to me that design-wise it falls behind some much cheaper RPGs in certain ways. My friend Grant owns several titles from Fantasy Flight, but where we’ve played them he’s inevitably wound up griping about the poor organization of the rulebook. I feel like board game players put up with things that RPG players would be quick to brand as heresy, and I’m not sure what that says about either group. Mansions of Madness has apparently gotten favorable reviews and even won a Golden Geek award (for best thematic board game), whereas Warhammer Fantasy 3rd Edition was massively reviled online solely on the basis of news of how it would use certain board game components and not be exactly like prior editions. Of course, to the extent that I would advocate using board game components and techniques in RPGs, I would not advocate using entirely separate categories of components for things that could much more easily be tracked on paper in the manner of a traditional RPG (the fatigue tokens in Warhammer being a very prominent example).
Of course, considering where I am as a designer (and to a lesser extent where RPGs are in general), making a game with so many components that it costs $80 isn’t really a serious consideration no matter what. I do kind of wish that RPGs could get away with that kind of thing more (look at just how much people freaked out over the price tag of WFRP3e), but then the $75 price tag is the main reason I don’t own a copy of FreeMarket. On the other hand, I do wish that people who play RPGs (or at least people who post about them online) didn’t come off as being so over-the-top purists about the kinds of materials that games can use. People freak out about things like the possibility of losing components from an RPG in a way that they just don’t seem to about board games. This is especially weird to me given that tabletop gaming in general has such a DIY streak that you would think that people would be quite willing and able to overcome any limitations imposed by materials on their own. Certainly people have no problem using just about anything imaginable as miniatures for D&D, and Wizards of the Coast probably ought to be taking a hint from all the fan made expansion for the D&D board games.