What’s in a Game?

Hello again! If you’ll indulge me a few hundred words, I’ve been thinking a bit about our hobbies – board gaming, cards and miniatures, roleplaying too – and their potential as a medium, and figured I may as well share those thoughts with you.


If that doesn’t sound like too much abstract nonsense to deal with right now, I’ll tell you I was a video gamer long before I got into anything that could be described as tabletop. And if you’ll permit me the sweeping generalisation, I would guess the majority of you were, or are, too. Now, I still play computer games plenty, but I’ve found my enthusiasm for it over the years has faded as the world of tabletop gaming opened up to me. The reason is clear enough: board games allow you to play with your friends, face-to-face. Whether competitively or co-operatively, you’re using the game’s mechanics to create an experience together. Where video games are often an isolating experience, board games necessitate interaction with others, and the best ones I’ve found let that interaction take centre stage. When you’re playing a board game, it’s hanging out with your friends, with benefits.


All this is not to say that tabletop games are somehow superior; rather, I’ve just found myself valuing that communal aspect more and more. And when you can’t stand people talking over movies, inviting everyone over for a game of Arkham Horror instead makes a pretty good excuse to see people, while also giving you something to fill in the silences with. That said, tabletop gaming can be more than just a social catalyst, and some very good designers have spent a lot of time exploring exactly what can be done with the medium.


Back in 2009, video-game-industry-superstar Brenda Romero was herself moving away from digital design, when she created a fairly simple game of little wooden bits and pieces, known only as Train. Train was never sold in any stores or published by any company; there exists just one copy and it would pop up now and again at conventions. If you have some hope of one day experiencing Train for yourself and don’t want anything spoiled for you, I’d go ahead and skip the next paragraph.


For the rest of you, here’s how the game played out: instructions were sparse, with objectives given to players written in stern typeface on small white cards. Players were charged with loading little wooden passengers into boxcars and shipping them off to their destination as efficiently as possible. Inevitably players would turn over a card that gave the train’s destination: Auschwitz. The ease with which the controlled framework of a game lured players into participation, despite the clues leading up to that moment of realisation (an SS insignia on a typewriter on the game board, broken glass beneath the train tracks), reminds us how much we take for granted when we agree to play by the rules of a game; that we implicitly trust that those rules are good and ought to be followed. And the heartfelt reactions from players, on learning what they had done, tells us that a simple game can affect us more deeply and stir more emotions than we’re usually willing to admit.


The example of Train has been discussed by a lot of people for a long time now, but it certainly wasn’t the only game to try delivering a message to players through marriage of theme and mechanics. Freedom: The Underground Railroad was commercially released in 2012, and in it players take the roles of abolitionists, working as a team to ferry escaped slaves across the Canadian border in the early years of the United States’ independence. The team at Shut Up & Sit Down did the game more justice than I ever could, but to sum it up: the game appears on the surface almost like a history lesson, yet it doesn’t really sink in until you realise how hard it is, and how often you need to make brutal choices between freeing a few more slaves or securing vital funds to support the movement’s continued existence. It’s a topic I’m way too far removed from to be able to speak about it with any degree of authority, but it stands as an excellent example of ways game can be more than just light entertainment; they can make you feel, and they can demand you think.


Does that mean all games should have that same degree of depth and complexity? God, no. Or does that mean games can be art? Perhaps, but it’s sort of a meaningless question, isn’t it? That’s a debate that our hobby’s electronic sibling has been engaged in for some time now, and it hasn’t really led anywhere. In the end, I think what’s great is that games really can be whatever we want them to be, and if some of us want light fun and someone else wants something more thought-provoking, well, both those things can exist and they won’t mutually annihilate one another.


See, tabletop gaming’s in a bit of a special place right now – board games, though technically ancient things, are also just in their infancy as it’s only in the last 10 years or so that they’ve really kicked off as a medium and a strong international community has banded around them. For card games it’s a similar story, while miniatures gaming is finding more widespread appeal too. It’s exciting to see where they’re going, and I gotta say, it’s something I’m proud to be a part of.


Now there’s no pithy conclusion that sums all this up, at least not one I’d be skilled enough to come up with. So in lieu of that, you’ll just have to put up with more of my rambling, as I leave you with one piece of advice: one of the greatest things about tabletop gaming is how it can bring people together. So let it. Get your friends together and ask them to play with you. If you’re going to the game store, maybe playing in a tournament, get to know the people there. Talk to them. From everything I’ve seen our community is pretty great, and it’s only going to get better as we all get to know each other.

~ Patrick

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