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Can't We Get Along: On Board Games and Player Interaction

Updated on November 28, 2014
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While the gamer subculture may have its distinctions from mainstream culture, one common ground twixt gamers and non-gamers is that of board games. Whether it is checkers, chess, or Ticket to Ride, everyone has had some exposure to a board game at one time or another; how that impacted them (preferably for the positive) is irrelevant to the point that everyone has come into contact with a board game at some point. Despite this commonality there are unfortunate stereotypes that may make certain games under-appealing to play simply because they are labeled as a board game. To further exacerbate the situation, many games can only be defined as board games and yet define such categorization. To shed light on this topic, lets paint the scene with the broadest strokes by discussing board games in terms of how players interact with one another throughout game play.

So what is so hard to understand about board games? You play on a board, move your piece(s) around and try to win. Well . . .

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Definition

Board games can be defined as being played on a pre-marked surface (i.e. the board) with tokens or markers. However, games like Carcassonne and Dominoes cannot be described as anything but board games and yet do not have a board to be played on. We could then say that the table is the board, we could revise the definition to say that it is any game that can be played on a table surface. Unfortunately, this makes things even murkier because now we are including miniature combat games, card games, and role-playing games (among many other categories) in this overly-broad definition.

In order to narrow the definition down to what we mean when discussing board games, let’s start eliminating variables. If we were to say that while some board games allow the players to act as specific characters, but inhibits their choices drastically, that would help differentiate between board games and role-playing games. Many board games use cards as part of game play, but collectability is not a factor in the design or function of the cards used (i.e. you don’t need to buy additional packs of cards to play Monopoly or other board games that use cards). Likewise, whenever one does buy a board game, it contains just about everything you need to play (except maybe scrap paper or pencils depending on the game).

So with these factors in place we can attempt to define board games as:

Games that contain all aspects and materials for game play with initial acquisition; any supplementary materials are strictly optional.

Better? Awesome, let’s move on to the “generation gap” of board games . . .

Classic vs Traditional

The ideal goal of any (board) game is to have fun. Obviously everyone’s interpretation of fun may vary; and so different board games cater to differing tastes. However, there is a distinct underlying trend that exists between the older board games and the more contemporary ones. Since there are numerous games that fall into one “camp” or the other regardless of age, we should differentiate between the two. Classic board games are those almost everyone would be familiar with, such as Life, Clue, Risk, and Monopoly. These are the older designed board games meant to be enjoyed by either children or the whole family. The rules tend toward the simplistic; the better to explain to a younger player-base. Traditional board games are the more contemporary board games that are designed for a specific type of game-play rather than age-range or audience. These games can include Talisman, Kingsburg, Kings of Tokyo, and Alhambra.

The biggest difference between Classic and Traditional board games is in design. This is not to infer that one or the other has drastically different aspects in concept; Kingsburg and Monopoly are both empire building games in abstract but do differ nevertheless. Instead the design of Traditional board games is put through greater rigors and constructed with re-playability in mind; in other words, Traditional board games are meant to be played repeatedly with each game allowing for a very different experience. Luck plays an important aspect to most board games as does player skill. However, in Traditional board games, both of those factors are given much greater consideration than in Classic games. Traditional games strive to ensure better balance in game-play (a topic for a more in-depth discussion later on); while the means may differ, Traditional games try to make sure that players do not get to run away with victory because the rules or luck permit them; the other players get to have their say in the matter, as it were.

With those broad descriptions aside, let us delve into some specific styles of game design in Traditional board games.

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RPG'esque

Almost all of board games pit players against each other in an entertaining competitive format. Whether it is a race, a head-to-head competition, or a clash of armies, most board games are confrontational in design and theme; with a single winner being the end goal. With board games that incorporate role-playing elements, multiple players adopt roles within a single team and strive to work against enemies controlled by a single player. So rather than everyone for themselves or one-on-one, here it is one versus many. While at the outset, this seems like the “GM” (Gamemaster; the player controlling the enemies) player may be at a disadvantage it rarely is the case. Instead, the “GM” typically has greater resources at their disposal and given other edges to allow them to be a challenge against the “hero” players. In games like Descent Journeys in the Dark, the Overlord has nearly endless waves of enemies and traps to throw at the heroes; with the added advantage being that time is limited for the heroes to complete their quest. In Mansions of Madness, the investigators must combat horrors and other dangers that are beyond their capabilities or sanity to withstand; while the Keeper inflicts derangements and injuries as the investigators succumb to the horrors of the story. For GM players, the fun of such games comes from being able to contend with multiple opponents and still come out on top; while the heroes can savor victory against near insurmountable odds.

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Cooperative

Many people are turned off by the appeal of board games because the competitive nature; they don’t want to partake in a game where they or anybody could be potentially ganged up on by the other players. Now while the RPG board games above can help players move past their anxieties, there are better options that may draw them into the appeal of board games; after all even in RPG games it is several players facing off against a single player. That better option is any one of the many Cooperative (Co-Op) board games. As the name implies, players cooperate with each other in order to win together. What are they facing off against? Typically the challenges are “controlled” and generated by the game, usually referred to as the board or deck depending on the exact means of generation. Here, the challenge is working together to overcome a shared challenge; winning together as a team or likewise losing together. While arguably a card game (but see the above discussion on the definition of board games), Sentinels of the Multiverse is a prime example of players facing off against the mutual threat of a villain deck that is bent on destroying the superhero players. In Pandemic, players are scientists desperately struggling to find a cure to multiple illnesses that are rapidly spreading across the globe and may consume humanity.

Source: Tabletop Gaming, Geek and Sundry Channel

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Semi-Cooperative

Between the gamut of confrontational board games and Co-Op games are the Semi-Cooperative (Semi Co-Op) games. These games share many of the characteristics of both styles: players are working together to overcome a mutual challenge, but players do not always have to win together. Either partnerships are merely temporary or players only cooperate for brief mutual self-interest (y’know, a sense of diplomacy). Betrayal at the House on the Hill is a horror themed game where players are exploring a creepy mansion in search of the mystery of the house. During the course of the game, the Haunt occurs when the plot thickens and one (or more) of the players turn out to be the Traitor(s). When this happens, each side of the confrontation must now pursue their own means of victory even at the expense of the opposing side. Settlers of Catan holds no illusion that every player is going to win over the other players; however, since progress in the game practically hinges on trading resources with other players, the players must cooperate in brief moments of mutual benefit in order to come out ahead.

Level 7

Washington-based gaming company Privateer Press has produced a series of games with each portraying one of the above styles, even though each is marketed as a Semi Co-Op game. The Level 7 games are set in a science-fiction modern world where aliens exist hidden from public eye and each continues the story from its predecessor. The first in the series, Level 7: Escape, finds the players as regular bystanders abducted for experimentation and now must escape (coincidence?) the facility; and while every player can survive each scenario, this is unlikely and is not required to advance within the game’s story. In Level 7: Omega Protocol, the players return to the facility of Escape in order to pacify it of the active alien threats and to ultimately destroy the complex. One player plays the Overseer who spawns and controls the aliens while the other players play as Commandoes seeking to complete the overarching mission of enacting Omega Protocol. The most recent addition to the series is Level 7: Invasion. Years after the events of Escape and Omega Protocol, the world has been invaded by a new alien menaces bent on humanity’s destruction. The players act as the various World Coalitions that must work in concert to quell the ongoing invasion. It is to everyone’s benefit to share resources and save one another, at least until they have completed their tasks for victory.

Welcome to Level 7

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