What is genre in board games?

I was describing Tokkaido to my brother once:

“…a pleasant walk across Japan, and whoever has the best time, wins!”

He pointed out that applies to the winner of every game, ever.

I had to agree, but the good time in Tokkaido has a distinct flavour, and I was trying to describe that.

The mood of Japanese politeness is captured. The character and the player are out to have a pleasant time, eating nice food, going on nice walks, and completing nice paintings.

There is simply no way to be unpleasant in Tokkaido. Unhurried, non-combative, the worst you can do is to take up space ahead of them, eat the sashimi, and apologise.

There are many ways to enjoy a game, it seems, which takes us to a discussion about genre.

What is genre?

It is easy in books and film – whatever emotional experience you are promised is the genre. Is there a promise of humour? Then it’s a comedy. Of tension? Then it’s suspense. Of sadness? Then it’s drama.

But ask a board game enthusiast, and their suggested genres usually describe the play of the game rather than the emotions expected.

Card games, wagering, deduction, puzzle, education… or themes of war, zombie, trains and so on.

What emotions do these evoke? One zombie game can invoke humour and another fear, so ‘zombie’ is hardly a genre. I think we have gotten the definition of genre wrong when it comes to board games.

I propose this: Genre in board games is the promised emotion between players.

But what about the board?

Ah yes. The game does play you.

Treat the game itself as an extra player, either active and plays a hand, or passive and stays out of the human interaction.

The biggest influence of the board on genre is a sliding scale of knowledge vs luck. The more knowledge, the more thinking; the more luck, the less you need to strategise.

Many game boxes nowadays do give luck and strategy ratings, and that’s a good start, though I contend that this scale is a means when it comes to genre rather than an end, as it enables the emotions in a game rather than being the genre itself.

With that covered, let’s get down to the emotional experiences available:

1: Bravado

The spirit of giving it a go. Taking a chance and celebrating your victories.

The board in Champions of Midgard is very active, providing plenty of beasties to kill with broadly estimated luck and a whole quiver of courage. Trolls, sea beasts, giants and armoured warriors await your challenge.

Overthinking is not an option. Midgard uses luck and uncertainty to enhance the Bravado – the earlier you throw yourself at a challenge, the higher the risk and reward. The best you can do is to take a broad slash at your odds, grab the dice, swear to Odin, and roll.

So much bravado! The mood had me imagining myself with a Viking beard, slamming a flagon on the table with battle-scarred hands, grasping the chunky dice like they were the hilt of a war axe and proclaiming “I, Hagaard, will take on the troll!”

You could cut the testosterone with an axe.

2: Domination

The thrill of besting a challenger.

It can feel good to roll the warfleet you have amassed across the board, mechs you sweated to raise, tearing up the farms and factories of other players, your enemies.

Or indeed the board. You alone take on the challenges of Friday until your skills improve, you beat the most difficult setting. I own you, Hermann Hesse.

In general, the more openness of information, and the more strategy or skill, the more a player can feel domination.

The degree of domination also relies on the degree of tension. In a puzzle room, you feel overwhelmed with a sense of dread and panic. Well, I do anyway. The tension rises, builds… then pops with relief as one of you solves a puzzle to take you forward.

Briefly back to Tokkaido, this is a game that deliberately avoids Domination and Bravado in order to create its mood.

3: Camaraderie

Co-op games involving an ordeal are fabulous for creating that feeling of closeness between people. Of helpfulness. You all got through by relying on each other.

Early co-ops had the problem of quarterbacking – one person telling the others what to do. This, then is a game that didn’t live up to its genre promise of Camaraderie.

I believe that much of this was solved, ironically, by introducing some form of betrayer element or secondary goal. They work together, but are on slightly different pages, the lack of trust making them immune to being commanded, and closer to those who turn out to be on your side.

Betrayal at House on the Hill is great for Camaraderie since you are all on the same team, but you know that the Haunting is coming, so no one person can instruct others. When the Haunting does come on a player, all others band together. The key is the imminent betrayal, as opposed to deception.

4: Sneakiness

Sheriff of Nottingham plays on the mood of Sneakiness where it eventually forces you to bluff contraband past the inspecting sheriff. You stifle a wry smile until your baggy is passed unopened and score for all those crossbows you got through.

Coup likewise brings on a sheepish grin as you claim the Duke and reach for three coins, almost daring others to call bluff.

Spyfall is a game of secrets, with nobody prepared to reveal too much about where they are, nor that the spy is trying to find that out. You spend the entire round smirking.

All games that involve some kind of bluff will bring on Deception Delight and quite a lot of grinning.

5: Play-acting

There is an emotion associated with theatrics, role-play, of play-acting with everyone’s full knowledge that that is what you are doing as opposed to deceiving. As your character, you negotiate through a scene.

The role-play of Dungeons and Dragons is not in the roll of the D20, but in talking through scenarios. Either ideas amongst the players as to how to defeat the beasty, or in talking with a particularly snarky NPC.

Red Flags is a party role-play where you are handed traits to argue your way into convincing the one in the hotseat that you are the better date, despite having two wooden arms, for example. The game is played better if you get into the role, even if this means giving yourself no chance to win that round. For the larks.

Genre 6: Tragedy (but funny, y’know?)

Little is funnier than watching a little mistake cause a long chain of misfortune – a comedy of errors.

The magic of RoboRally is when a player has a glorious plan with perfect cards laid out… but before it starts, their robot is bumped just a little, and that player watches in comedic horror as the plan collapses, the robot crosses into a laser, then a pit.

Galaxy Trucker runs on tragedy. Build a ship, send it into space, and hold on tight as fate, rocks and random pirates tear apart your vessel.

And the best games of Colt Express involve a crowded table who all like to punch so nobody knows where they’ll be by the end of the round. “Doc, Django shoots you into the carriage with the Sheriff, who shoots you onto the roof, where you are shot by Belle and Ghost, and you… go down, back into the sheriff, who shoots you again, and…”

One can but laugh.

Genre 7: Exploration

Storytelling. Discovery. The thrill of finding out what’s around the corner.

I love Dead Of Winter mostly for the crossroads deck. To me, the survivalist elements provide a tense backdrop to carry the story.

Fallout involves revealing more of the Commonwealth, and the story in the deck. As testament to this, you can play solo, thus with no element but adventure, the game still carries its weight.

Pandemic Legacy lends a lot more adventure to the Legacy world. It takes us on an adventure serial – the same characters, the same world, but what now will the game give us or throw at us?

You could also explore by revealing information about each other player. Games like Scruples will let you ask awkward questions of each other and guess as to what their response will be.

Again Red Flags. You reveal by your arguments and choices just a little more about yourself, and the other players explore that.

Genre 8: Bargaining

The ability to cut a deal with another player, of getting a good price and persuading them to do as you want.

And you don’t get that from a movie! Not unless you haggle over the popcorn.

Power Grid’s core is the auction. Deal-making is the only active part of Monopoly. For Sale features nothing but bidding wars.

So powerful is this device that one designer now refuses to include auctions in his games because it often takes over the rest of the gameplay.

Even when it is not in the rules, those drawn to the thrill of the deal will find a way. The best player of Witch Trial that I have known used the threat of a card he was holding to extract an inordinate amount of power from that card – and never even used it!

Many people, many approaches

There are many more emotions that could be added here, but these are a few broad strokes to get us started.

Genre is merely the promise of the availability of certain experiences. Some people might really love to experience a certain emotion in play, and if the game allows it, that’s what they do, and they enjoy it.

The game you have in mind has more than one genre? That’s right, and many films and books do too. A film is a bit cheesy if it has only one mood going on. A ‘genre’ movie is not highly regarded.

So we can look at which emotions a game is designed to hit – what the promise is, and call that its genre. Some thematic instructions then could help get the players into that mood.

If a game is asymmetrical, in the same game I might have one experience, you might have another, and Jo and Dave might have others still. Each player might then be drawn to particular characters for next time. One genre for each part, perhaps.

The games success in that genre will be how well the player achieves that experience.

So, designers, find out which emotion your game promises, amplify that, subtract detractions, add thematic instructions to put your players in the mood if necessary, and let your players ride the wave of memorable experiences.

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