Thoughts on Board Games

Today I bought a card game about farming beans. Specifically, Uwe Rosenberg’s Bohnanza. My interest in board games has increased quite a bit lately, and although I don’t have a lot of money to throw around, I’m nonetheless ending up buying things like the bean-farming card game.

I also got a copy of Sid Sackson’s book “A Gamut of Games,” a collection of 38 games, spanning board games, card games, and pencil-and-paper games, ranging from new works by himself and other designers to games found in publications from centuries ago. He was a prolific game designer, and from what I gather, he was an important figure in the development of board games. He pushed for more recognition for game inventors, and he was apparently part of the movement that led to eurogames. The games in A Gamut of Games mostly use traditional materials–a couple packs of cards, a checkers set, and a pencil and paper would be enough to play more of the games than not–but those games were by and large unconventional. Where I’ve found Hoyle books to get rather repetitive after the 20th trick-taking game (not that trick-taking games are bad, but there are enough that they blur together after a while), his book of card games (Card Games Around the World) has a baseball game played with cards.

Looking back, I think the major thing that’s changed for me is that I’ve just been exposed to board games that are variously more to my tastes or just plain better. With the exception of fond memories of playing Scrabble with my grandma, the board games I played when I was young just weren’t that fun for me. I don’t think I really have the right kind of mind for chess, and I found Monopoly just plain unfun and boring[1]. Although my enthusiasm for it has waned lately, Cards Against Humanity was the first card game that really and truly clicked for me, and it led me to other games like The Big IdeaDixit, Love Letter, and Dominion that I greatly enjoyed. There are still some games that do nothing for me (notably, games like Resistance or Avalon that are heavily based on bluffing), and although I seem to have a knack for picking up game rules quickly, I don’t have a lot of patience for complex games these days (though that’s definitely true of RPGs as well). I do kind of wish I had gotten into board games sooner, but on the other hand a lot of the games that really work for me are relatively recent. In essence the divide between the kinds of board games I played as a kid and disliked and the kinds I played as an adult and liked is the distance that designers like Sid Sackson advanced the medium.

Although I’m interested in board games for their own sake, I’m also doing all of this with an eye towards how it can apply to RPGs. RPGs have their own merits, but I think there are certain things that RPGs could stand to learn from them:

  • Compactness: Although there are a few board games that you can play as a massive campaign, for the most part they have evolved towards being more efficient and compact. Where a typical D&D session can be 4-6 hours, 2-3 hours is on the high end for the play time of board games. The pure role-playing has value and shouldn’t be eliminated or rushed, but the mechanical parts of RPGs include a lot of trends that make things less efficient, usually in the name of simulation or tradition, even if they don’t particularly add anything to the experience at the game table.
  • Teaching: There are exceptions (like pretty much every Fantasy Flight game I’ve tried so far), but by and large board games do a very good job of teaching people how to play. Some of that comes naturally from the rules being simpler, but RPG rulebooks often don’t seem to have a lot of thought put into the order in which you’d need to learn concepts. D&D (which I’m mentioning because it’s a well-known example, not because it’s exceptionally good or bad in this respect) has a lot of player options in the book well before the parts that would let you really understand the game well enough to make an informed decision about them. Mouse Guard is one of the few RPGs I know of where you can pretty much read the book front to back with no page-flipping and emerge with a decent understanding of the game. But even rarer is something like the rulebooks for Krosmaster Arena or Space Alert, which include simplified tutorial scenarios as well as the game rules.
  • Presentation: One of the major things that helps many board games achieve their efficiency is in how they efficiently provide information to players. I’ve written before about how D&D seems to have little to no thought given to how players are supposed to keep track of things at the game table, and I’ve certainly seen plenty of time wasted sifting through the PHB to figure out which thing from the character sheet to use. Apocalypse World‘s playbooks are one of the best solutions to this in RPGs so far, but that level of efficient reference seems to be pretty routine in board games.

One thing that’s emerging in my flailing attempts to begin designing card and board games is a series of games themed around cute witches going to witch school,[2] sort of like AEG’s many games set in the fictional nation of Tempest or Level 99 Games’ recurring World of Indines setting.

The first that I started on, but the one that’s proving the hardest to design is Magical Rail. I had the idea while visiting my sister in Washington D.C. She and her husband are huge into board games–my brother in law’s collection literally has over 700 different games–but since we got around D.C. on the train a lot it seemed like we had a lot of dead time, hence I had the idea of a game you could play on the train. The players would hold the (small number of) cards in their hands between them throughout the game, and gameplay involves a series of manipulations of those cards. It’s different enough from other card games (much less the relatively small subset of card games I’ve been exposed to) that it’s hard to figure out how exactly to proceed, but hitting on ideas like having players unable to rearrange the order of their cards (hence checking out Bohnanza for ideas) and 180-degree rotation of cards is slowly getting me to where I want to be.

The second is Magical Midterm, which started as an attempt at a light but still more strategic roll-and-move game, which I think grew out of playing Mario Party for the first time. In Magical Midterm instead of rolling dice you have a hand of movement cards, which include both basic movement and spells, which cost Mana Tokens. It’s still very early in development, and I’m planning to look deeper into race games in general for ideas, possibly going as far as to make it a game where each player has multiple pieces to move as in games like Pachisi.

Little Witches Duel is one I started on yesterday, and it’s basically a variant of the game Mate that appeared in A Gamut of Games, with a dedicated 20-card deck, a magical theme, and an attempt at adding in some Seiji Kanai style card effects. The result is (hopefully) a simple yet relatively deep 2-player card game.

Also on my list of possible games to do some day is a Slime Story deck-building game, though that would be quite a ways off.


[1]I’ve heard that Monopoly is a much better game if you include the auction rules, which seem to have largely been omitted from the oral tradition version of the game. My experiences with it were negative enough that I’m not really willing to go back and try again though.

[2]The idea popped into my head today to have reskinned versions aimed at boys with grimdark warlocks, but if I were to make something like that it would probably wind up being unspeakably sarcastic.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Board Games

  1. Neat stuff. Just for fun, a Magical Midterms idea, what if the pawns represented something abstract like your skills in witchcraft, alchemy, and enchantment? You need to ‘pass’ all three classes in order to graduate. As you complete more of each class, you gain access to more powers/cards so there is some strategy in choosing which classes to focus on.

  2. Bohnanza is one of my family’s favorite games. The rules feel confusing for the first round or two, then it becomes easy. The trading adds a semi-cooperative element that I like — a lot of trades are win-win because you often need to get rid of cards coming up in your hand that will wreck your current fields, while those same cards are ones another player really needs.

    Have you tried any cooperative board games? I’ve settled on them as my favorite type. Pandemic is generally awesome, Ghost Stories has a nice Chinese/wuxia theme but is quite difficult, and I recently got The Captain Is Dead which is a perfect emulation of a tense shipboard Star Trek episode.

    (Don’t you live in/near San Jose? We should get together and game sometime :)

    1. For the card based games, Hanabi is another kinda neat cooperative one that largely involves keeping track of cards while not being able to see your own. A lot of people start sorting and rotating their cards accordingly by holding them at weird angles, but it is not required in the rules at all.

      The closest thing I can think of to your hypothetical train game that you might be interested in is Pieces of Eight. Based on the theme it is played with metal coins held in a stack in one hand (or on the table if you want). As bits of your ship are sunk they move to your pocket. http://www.atlas-games.com/piecesofeight/ You can download the rules here for free.

      With my board gaming group, we’ve discussed how Bohnanza is fun but doesn’t hit the table much because the beans are an odd theme compared to the Cthulhus, zombies, and Star Wars games.

  3. I’m vaguely given to understand that technically, not being any fun is the entire point of Monopoly. The original version of the game was created by some lady just after the turn of the 20th century who made it as an object lesson about how capitalism sucks and is stacked in favor of rich landlords. You’re apparently supposed to play two rounds, first the normal, tedious, grinding version everyone’s familiar with, then a second round where one guy gets all the property and everyone else has all the money and stuff; this round is also tedious and grinding but supposedly the guy with all the property will absolutely ream everyone else and get all the money and everyone will learn that no one should be allowed to own land, or at the very least no one should be allowed to charge rent.

    1. Yeah, the history gets a bit muddy, but Monopoly is descended from a game called The Landlord’s Game, which was apparently meant to be propaganda about how land grabbing and renting had inherently unfair results and enriched landlords while leaving tenants in poverty. The designer hoped that children would come away from playing it with an understanding of the inherent unfairness of it. I really have no idea what she’d think of the place Monopoly has in contemporary culture.

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