The Evolution of Story Games
I don’t really think I planned on going with some board game history and mechanic posts for a series, but I liked how the previous one turned out, and I thought it would be interesting to look at some more mechanics in that in-depth a way.
Story games are interesting because they care as much about the story and theme as they do about the mechanics a lot of the time. But for a long time there weren’t a ton of story games. Games, for a long time, were pretty straight forward either luck or logic games. A game like Chess or Go doesn’t really tell a story because it’s all been abstracted away. Even though you have two armies facing off in chess, they are just pieces that have specific movement rules, not like they are tied into the different types of characters and why they move the way they move.Or you would have luck based games. A game like Monopoly seems like it has some more story that is going on, but the game is so random that you can’t really tell a story in it.
Then there started to be some story games, but they weren’t your regular board games. RPG’s were the first games that really told stories and really focused in on story telling. There was story in some games prior to that, war games for example told the story of a battle, but D&D and RPG’s were the first to really create those story gaming moments. But even they had a lot of rules at the beginning, now we’re seeing the loose story based RPG’s that don’t care nearly as much about the rules or have abstracted most of the rules away into a single, simple roll of the dice for anything.
But in board games there were games that tried to delve more so into story, and we’ve actually seen the idea of story telling board games really take off as of late. A lot of this can be attributed to the growth of the hobby, but some of the earlier ones also helped the hobby grow. While games like Catan or Ticket to Ride have abstracted away all of the story and are some of the biggest ones for growing the hobby, story based games helped the hobby continue to grow into the big hobby it is today. Finding that sweet spot of where people could play a game the way that they want while still having some rules and structure makes gaming a lot more appealing to a lot of people.
There are a number of different story telling games. There are some that are basically light RPG’s and some that are board games that tell you a story. We have a number of interesting examples to look at though in board gaming.
Tales of the Arabian Nights and Near and Far are two interesting games where you are going out exploring. There are plenty of game focused parts to what you are doing and you have some skills, but the main focus of the game is going out exploring and getting a little bit of story. So that’s what most people are playing them for, being able to make those few decision bits in their story. Now, I personally enjoy both of these games, but they do have a bit of a flaw to them. That’s in both games the story while being loosely connected at items, especially in Near and Far, are random bits of story that you are reading from a book. The story isn’t cohesive as it goes along so while it starts to feel like a story game, it is missing a little bit.
Take that in comparison to a game like Sword and Sorcery. Now I haven’t played Sword and Sorcery, but it is one that I’ve seen played. In that, and in Tainted Grail, you are finding story events for various scenarios that unfold the story for you. A certain card or a certain place might trigger a different bit of the story. So while you don’t have to find the story in a specific order, always, you are figuring out the story and what’s going on in the world as you go. These games are newer than either Tales of the Arabian Nights or Near and Far (though Near and Far is quite new), and they can get away with it, because you are playing through chapters and scenarios.
That leads us into other scenario games. In particular, I’m thinking of Legacy games here. I don’t know that you’d consider Pandemic Legacy to be a scenario based game, but as you play through and find out more information about the story, it feels like it’s a scenario based game for how you have to win each game. In this case, they are handing out specific story points at very specific points in the game. And that works really well for a game like Pandemic Legacy or even a game like Gloomhaven which isn’t a true legacy game or is the new wave of legacy game where you can play it repeatedly without buying a new copy.
Seafall in comparison gives you a different story feel. While in Pandemic Legacy you can make choices that will affect the game, you are following a pretty linear story. In Gloomhaven you can go further afield from the story, but you are still focused on the story and you get the main story to unfold in a certain order. What Seafall tried to do was too ambitious in creating a story that unfolded in whatever order you read it. The issue is that it doesn’t really work, because you have to be so vague about it. That turned the story into a bit of a mess.
So, what other ways are we seeing stories besides these scenario games?
We’re also seeing story in games where the game is about making up your own story. Once Upon a Time and Gloom are two examples of this. In Once Upon A Time you are trying to create a fairy tale by playing cards while telling a story and eventually leading the story to your own ending that you got at the beginning of the game. This works okay as a game, but does run into a run away leader problem and the rules are just very loose, so it isn’t going to work for everyone. Gloom on the other hand is a depressing story as you try and kill off your family of characters while they are miserable. But the more miserable they are, the more points you get, so you are playing a card each turn and telling a story as you play the card as to why your character is more miserable or someone else’s character is less miserable. These games take the story telling away from the game itself, and mechanically add the story telling element to the game with what the players need to do. The downside to this is that if you don’t have a creative group, or more so, if you don’t have a group that is just going to be silly, the game isn’t going to work as well.
On the opposite side of things you have games that basically are only story. I did an article on them recently with RPG Lite. But two great examples of this are Legacy of Dragonholt and Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger. Both of these games are really just Choose Your Own Adventure, with a couple of mechanics added in so that you can’t quite just only do it as a book.
On the opposite side of things you have games that basically are only story. I did an article on them recently with RPG Lite. But two great examples of this are Legacy of Dragonholt and Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger. Both of these games are really just Choose Your Own Adventure, with a couple of mechanics added in so that you can’t quite just only do it as a book. That takes away the pressure of the story or the pressure of learning a lot of rules from the players and puts it back onto the game designer, but when you strip away most game mechanics, you can basically just worry about writing a story, it works well.
So, where do I fall with story games?
For me, if a game doesn’t have an interesting theme, I’m less apt to enjoy the game. There are some games where the look is nice enough or the mechanics are good enough, that I like it without having an interesting theme. But most of the time I want theme, and because of that, it means that I want heavy story as well. The story is one way to get a lot of theme into the game. So you’ll see what are commonly called Ameri-trash games showing up on my reviews more likely than a Euro Game because Euro Games tend to be pretty themeless. Even Euro Legacy games, like Charterstone, the story is 100% outside of the game and doesn’t impact what you do or how you play the game at all.
I also think that story is something that is important to games in terms of getting new people into games. There are some games that are simple enough that they don’t need story, but it’s easier to pitch a game to someone where they get to be a hero fighting against the evil corporation, versus a game where they are collecting gems. Even if the second game is a better made and balanced game, it’s still harder to get people to play it.
So, let me toss it out to you, what are some games that are story focused that you really like? How much story do you need in the game?
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