Six friends are spending time together on a Saturday evening. They have all gathered for one event. A decisive moment is approaching. Some of those present are standing, a few are sweating, and one is anxiously biting his lower lip. All the sudden, everyone shouts, a few high fives are awarded, and a couple others sigh and shake their heads.
Fundamentally, all games are vessels through which we can experience stories. Even the purest mechanically-driven video games (Tetris, Pong, Dr. Mario) build narrative and offer shared experiences, who can’t relate to the relief of seeing the long, narrow rectangle appear in the “up next” Tetris box? This shape becomes the lanky, awkward hero, arriving in the knick of time to rescue our architectural disaster. This is a hero we celebrate when he shows up, and curse when he deserts us. Similarly, the thrill of achieving a high score, or reaching a previously-unreached level becomes the badge of honor we display to friends, while recapping the surprising events that took us there.
Tabletop games are no exception to this rule, with one significant difference from their video-based cousins. While a well-designed video game often guides us through a gripping tale that the creator intended to tell in a specific way, a well-designed tabletop game will actually create a space which a group of people can mutually enter into and shape a story of their own. Rather than inviting us to experience a pre-written tale, a board game asks the participants to join in writing its story.
Betrayal and Battlestar Galactica
About 40 minutes into the game, the entire group is facing a crisis. Knowing exactly how many resources the team needs to succeed, every player secretly places a card from their hand into a central pile. This pile is shuffled and revealed, the crisis is narrowly averted, but it becomes apparent that someone played a card that actually hindered the team. With narrowed eyes, you quickly scan the table, knowing that you have your suspicions, but to cast them too eagerly would accomplish nothing but heap accusations on yourself.
The brilliance of Battlestar Galactica lies in the secrecy of the betrayal. At some point in the game, there will be a traitor. Everyone at the table knows this. The intrigue, however, is stirred up by the fact that this traitor may not show up until halfway through the game. Knowing the ever-present possibility that one’s goal could secretly shift to sabotaging the mission, every player does their part at the beginning, but without wanting the team to get too far ahead. The tension created by this mechanic is palpable. Absolutely every move, every intention, and every remark is scrutinized and questioned. If you are at all familiar with the source material, the social atmosphere created by the board game is uncannily similar to the television series.
When the time comes to put everything back into the box, shocking and hilarious moments will be heard and told from every person’s perspective. I’ll never forget the game in which I vocally, and rightfully, accused the traitor quite early, but the rest of the team was suspicious of how confident I was. They decided everyone would be safer if I was locked up in the brig, and I had to helplessly watch as they handed the role of admiral over to the individual I accused.
Fate and Tales of the Arabian Nights
Oftentimes, the human experience can feel beyond our power to manipulate. Serendipitous encounters take place which we couldn’t have hoped to arrange ourselves, and resources flow in and out of our grasp with such coincidental timing that we simply must throw up our hands. Sometimes, it is best to admit we are small, powerless creatures inhabiting a massive universe that seems to gleefully remind us of our insignificance.
No game evokes this feeling more than Tales of the Arabian Nights.
A self-described “storytelling game”, players are asked to temporarily inhabit the fictional world of Aladdin, Sinbad and Scheherezade to seek adventure and pursue their destiny. It’s a grand vision, but players soon learn that the best-laid plans amount to naught. While exploring a city, you may encounter a haggard old woman and seek to help her, only to find that she is a cursed spirit in human form, looking to seek vengeance on the first person to speak to her in millenia: you. Learning from your mistakes, you run into a similar figure on later explorations. Naturally, you preemptively attack, only to be apprehended by local authorities and tossed in a dungeon, where a miserable jailkeeper blames you for his family problems and refuses to feed you.
Every possible outcome of every randomly-generated encounter (some 2000+ paragraphs) is written out in an absurdly long, spiral-bound book which comes in the box. The experience inevitably devolves into impatiently waiting to find out what ridiculous outcome awaits your next turn. At some point, you will stop trying to make “strategic” choices, and simply let the unforgiving flow of fate take you on your journey, which is kind of beautiful. Though someone will officially “win”, per the rules of the game, everyone knows the real victor is the person with the funniest, and usually most unfortunate, series of encounters.
The playwright William Archer once said, “Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.” Such drama is a necessary ingredient in the strongest, most memorable stories. Without it, the narrative is bland, like an unsalted dish. Combine this strong narrative ingredient with a social setting, in which you and your closest friends have agreed to invest time with each other and make decisions which direct and build the story you are all experiencing, and you now have the recipe for a perfect tabletop gaming experience. Personally, I can’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday night.