Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Board game metaphors

Sometimes I wish board games had more cultural currency, because then I could use them in analogies and metaphors.  Alas, board games are such a niche interest that they can't really be used as a common cultural touchstone.  In fact, culture has such a "long tail" that only the most popular works can ever be used as a touchstone.  You have your footballs, your Star Warses, and your Bibles, all of which derive value from their popularity, even if their intrinsic value is in my opinion questionable.

Well, I'm just going to ramble about board games regardless of whether anyone "gets" it.

Even within board games, there are a few giants which all people are familiar with.  There's Chess, Poker, Monopoly, Risk, Scrabble.  And among nerdier people, everyone knows about D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and Settlers of Catan.  All of which I have complaints about, although some more than others.  By far the worst is Monopoly, which comes from an era when I think people just didn't understand game design.

I mostly play games in the Eurogame tradition, which is the one that includes Settlers of Catan.  I might as well say that one of my favorite games is Dominion, a deck-building game from 2008.  Dominion reached such popularity that it has been subject to a lot of imitation, and that's basically what the "deck-building" genre is.  I play several other deck-building games as well, like Ascension and Eminent Domain.

One of the interesting design choices in Dominion is the near-complete elimination of "politics".  In board games, "politics" refers to situations which depend on the power dynamics of the players.  A typical political situation is if I have a card that hurts one other player, but I can choose which player to hurt.  In Dominion, it is generally not possible to single out any opponent to hurt.  In a game like Settlers of Catan, players trade goods with each other, which is inherently political.

Because there aren't any politics, Dominion ends up being more of a pure game of economic development.  Each player has their own deck of cards, and they buy new cards to put into the deck.  Most cards improve your deck, allowing you to buy even better cards to put into it.  But you also want to buy "victory" cards, which actually make your deck worse.  When the game ends, you count up the points on your victory cards, and the highest score wins.  So the basic strategy is that you progressively improve your deck until a critical point, when you start "greening" and buying lots of victory cards (which are colored green).  The most important part of playing well is knowing when to green.

The build-up/cash-out structure is shared by many other Eurogames, even ones that are not deck-building games.  For example, in Race For the Galaxy, each player expands their galactic empire.  However, halfway through the game, some players might choose to switch to a "consume" strategy, where they take the empire they have, and focus on making lots of victory points.  Victory points don't help you expand your empire at all, but they are, after all, what's used to determine victory.

What's this a metaphor for?  Man, I don't know.  Life.  Except that life is political.

Here's another metaphor.  In Dominion, there are ways to remove cards from your own deck.  Beginners often don't understand why this is useful.  I bought those cards, why would I want to get rid of them?  Turns out getting rid of cards is one of the most powerful abilities, because it's the average card in your deck which matters.

That right there, that's a metaphor for life.  Life is like a deck of cards, and sometimes you want to get rid of some cards.  And sometimes you want to go for the village/smithy engine or the duchy rush strategy or the double jack strategy, or maybe the metaphor is breaking down here...

I don't know where I'm going with this.  Do any of my readers play board games?


miller said...

A local game store has a regular game night where you can pay a couple bucks and spend the whole night playing numerous different games that they have open on the shelf. It's nice, because the staff can explain the basics & get you started without you having to pore thru all the rules. I used to go there regularly with a group of friends a few years back, and after a while, we realized that we had played Shadows Over Camelot during game night so many times that we should have just bought the damn game!

What I like about it is that, unless everyone can overcome their naturally competitive tendencies and work cooperatively to win as a group, then there's a high likelihood that everyone will collectively lose (global warming, perhaps?). That ends up being a pretty good challenge on its own, depending on the group you play with, but if that becomes too easy, you can make the game even more challenging by appointing a secret "traitor" among the players, whose goal is to make the group lose without making it too obvious that they are the traitor. Definitely some good metaphors in there.

miller said...

I've never played Shadows Over Camelot. The traitor mechanic sounds a bit like Battlestar Galactica.

I have a lot of thoughts about the difficulties in designing a good cooperative board game. Although I don't know if I'd ever write about it at length because it has so little to do with anything.

miller said...

As I'm sure you're aware, the prisoner's dilemma has been used to describe a whole myriad of situations in which working cooperatively would bring about better outcomes for everyone in a group, but working in one's individual self-interest cuts against the cooperative approach. It's been used as a model for things like nuclear brinksmanship and international agreements on global warming.

We live in a culture, and come from an educational system, that disproportionately values individual competition over group cooperation. I value cooperative games not so much as models of how the world works, but rather as tools for developing a set of social and group skills that most of us are not very good at, but which are arguably critical skills for humanity in the coming century.