Games that Tell Stories

Battlestar Galactica

A couple of weeks ago we looked at Ignacy Trzewiczek in our Designer Spotlight.  He is the founder of Portal Games, whose tagline is ‘Board games that tell stories’.  That’s very much the mantra of Ignacy Trzewiczek’s design philosophy and that phrase has really stuck with me.

I love stories and I love games.  Combining these two is like a match made in heaven.  I really love games that tell stories.  And it got me thinking, how many games are there that really tell a good story?

It’s not easy to do.  I’ve spoken before about the trade-off between adventure and replayability, but replayability aside, it’s still very difficult to provide a decent story through the medium of a boardgame.

Today we take a look at what makes a good story and see if there are any games that really deliver it.

What does it mean for a game to tell a story?  Does it mean literally reading out passages of flavour text?  Or is it more about providing tales that you can tell afterwards?  “Steve thought I was on his team, but then I revealed myself as a traitor, sabotaged the mission and won!”

It got me thinking: what if we approached story in games in the same way as writers approach story in other contexts, like films or fiction.

An awful lot of stories, particularly modern ones (like Hollywood films), follow a fairly standard structure.  A story doesn’t have to follow this structure to be great, but most of the great stories do:

  1. Hook

This gets the reader to ask a question.  The reader then has a motivation to carry on reading: they want an answer to the question.  Eg. “Violet stared at the body – and then at the blood on her hands.”  How did the victim die?  Was Violet the murderer?  If not, why does she have blood on her hands?  Etc.

  1. Inciting Incident

This disrupts the hero’s way of life and incites them to take action.  Eg. “When Jordon saw her, he knew his life would never be the same.”  Jordan sees a girl and it changes his world.  He must now pursue her at all costs.

  1. Pinch Point 1

This creates a setback for the hero.  Eg. “The prep work for the trial had gone well, but then Gillian discovered who the opposition would be: Henry Walker, the best trial attorney in the State.”

  1. Turnaround

Usually as a result of the first pinch point, this causes the hero to change what they were doing and formulate a strategy to overcome the obstacles in their path.  Eg. “Ryan came to a decision: he wasn’t going to run from these monsters any longer.  He was going to fight.”

  1. Pinch Point 2

This is very similar to Pinch Point 1, except that it’s usually a greater setback.  It frequently makes it look like the villain will actually win.  The purpose of this pinch point is to set up and heighten the final climax.  Eg. “Yvette was injured, Mel had left, Edwin had fallen out with everyone.  How could they ever hope to compete in the final?”

  1. Climax

This is the final confrontation between the hero and the challenges they face.  Eg. “Kara drew her sword.  This was it: the moment she had trained for all her life.  Either she would prevail or her world would be consumed in flame.”

  1. Resolution

This resolves everything.  The conflict finishes, the questions are answered, the hero’s need for action ends.  The hero begins a new life or returns to their old one, but they are forever changed.  Eg. “As the train pulled out from the station, Jason knew it was over.  There was no going back.  But for the first time in his life, he felt hope.”

Are there games that contain any/all of these elements?  Let’s investigate:

  1. Hook

Any game worth its salt will provide a hook, usually on the back of the box, to entice people to buy and then play the game.  Eg. “Transylvania is a castle-building game with a unique action-selection mechanism.”  How do you go about building a castle?  How does the action-selection mechanism work?

  1. Inciting Incident

This should set the scene and provide a reason for players to take control of their characters at this time.  Many games attempt to do this: you are stranded on a tropical island and have to survive in Robinson Crusoe; diseases have started spreading around the world and you have to contain them in Pandemic; you have inherited a farm and have to grow crops and raise animals or your family will starve in Agricola.

There are plenty of games that make little or no effort to provide an inciting incident though.  Euros are particularly culpable here: I have no idea why I’m doing what I’m doing in The Castles of Burgundy, for example.

  1. Pinch Point 1

The pinch point is much rarer.  You really need to present an obstacle to players part way through the game to satisfy this one.  Games with a campaign (like Mechs vs Minions) will often provide this in the form of a villain.  The villain will usually show up after the players have had a couple of missions to get their feet wet and get the hang of the game.

Euros can do this as well though.  After a couple of rounds of peace, In the Year of the Dragon introduces negative events that force players to stockpile food, money or healers to protect against famine, taxation or plague.

  1. Turnaround

This is tricky.  For a game to provide a turnaround, it has to get players to change what they were doing and try a different strategy.  Most games are designed with a single ‘storyline’ in them: players formulate one strategy and then implement that strategy throughout the whole game.  This makes the game straightforward, but it isn’t as interesting from a story-telling point of view.

Having said that, there are games that provide a turnaround point in them.  Battlestar Galactica has a moment halfway through the game, where a fresh set of loyalty cards are dealt out.  This may make players who were previously good into Cylons (baddies) and at the very least throws suspicion on everyone, which really changes the dynamic of the game.

  1. Pinch Point 2

Again, this is hard to do, but co-op games can provide a major setback near the end when everything seemed to be going well.  Games like Pandemic can snowball fast when things start to go wrong.  If you draw two epidemic cards close to each other, a relatively benign area of the board can suddenly turn into a disaster zone.

This could also happen in war games where one player suddenly looks like they are going to win.  Everyone else realises they are going to have to work together to stop them.  It provides a chance for an underdog to strengthen their position in preparation for the climax.  It is very hard to design a pinch point into a game at this juncture though.  Usually they happen organically, or not at all.

  1. Climax

Most games manage to include a climax.  Whether it’s triggering the last round of a Euro and everyone makes a latch-ditch effort to score a few more points, or facing off against the boss in a dungeon crawl, modern games make it clear when the end is nigh and everyone needs to give their all.

I think it is an important element of game design that the climax doesn’t last too long.  If everyone is expecting the game to end, but it keeps on going for a few more rounds, those last few rounds will really drag.  Psychologically, the climax needs to be clear and succinct.

  1. Resolution

Finally, then, all games have a resolution.  At the very least, the original question of who will win and who will lose will be answered (which might be everyone in a co-op!).  What many games don’t do though, is provide an opportunity to reflect on the adventure: to look back and see how we, as players, have changed.

City-building games do this well though.  At the end, you can see what you’ve built and how different the board looks from the start and feel a sense of satisfaction at what you’ve accomplished, even if you didn’t win.

Most games obviously don’t contain all these elements, but I think the more of these elements a game contains, the greater the story that will be told.

I think it is no coincidence that the current top 5 games on BoardGameGeek (Pandemic: Legacy, Through the Ages, Twilight Struggle, Gloomhaven and Star Wars: Rebellion) all contain a significant number of the traditional storytelling elements.  People love a good story.

And if you’re looking for games that tell stories, I would highly recommend any of those, but campaign games and Legacy games are clearly going to have a natural advantage here.  For what it’s worth, my favourites would be Too Many Bones, The Lord of the Rings LCG, Myth and The 7th Continent.

Do you like games that tell stories?  Which games do you think do that best?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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4 years ago

Do you think it matters how much ownership the players have over the story? In some of the examples above, the ‘story’ is imposed on the players in the form of pre-determined or random events. Games where the players create the story have quite a different feel – role playing games particularly, like Descent or Arkham Horror, make me feel much more like I have been part of a story, rather than that it has just happened to me.

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