Friday with the Fellows: Can a Board Game Tell a Story?

On mechanics and meaning

For my last blog post on board games and the humanities, I want to write a bit more in depth about the curious relationship between game mechanics and the story told on the table. It may seem unlikely, but I find that some of my most memorable encounters with dramatic storytelling happen at the table.

Consider the six-sided die. There’s a tactility to a dice roll that is undeniably pleasant. It has a tangible weight in your hand, and it makes a sound when it rolls across the table. Equally important is its movement  and in that moment, the synthesis of kinesis and probability create a moment of tension. Once it stops, it reveals a face that gives you information with which you conclude your turn. Setup, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement–all the hallmarks of the classic story structure we learn in grade school.

The dice roll itself only matters, though, if it’s performed in a context that matters to us. This is where I find board games’ capacity for storytelling compelling. Though the dice roll described above contains a story on its own, the added layer of art and theme a game can bring to the action makes the roll mean something. When that roll of dice represents how much havoc your cardboard standee monster can wreak as it wanders into Tokyo, punching all in its path? That’s not just a dice roll; it’s drama.

Intentional lessons

Using mechanics to tell a story isn’t exactly new to board gaming. Indeed, games have been used to tell stories through play for centuries. One of the darkest examples I can think of comes from the origins of Monopoly. It’s first incarnation was called “The Landlord’s Game,” and it was designed in 1904 by a woman named Lizzie Magie. Magie hoped its mechanics that prioritized greed and rapid accumulation of capital (at the expense of the other players) would educate players about the systemic exploitation of renters at the hands of greedy landlords and real estate moguls.  

Due to a complicated bout of double-dealing regarding the game’s patent, a man by the name of Charles Darrow (long considered to be the designer of the game) re-branded it Monopoly and set it in Atlantic City. This was the version that the Parker Brothers decided to publish (after rejecting Magie’s idea). Thus a game built on mechanics of a predatory system of lending and bankruptcy, of a bank running out of money, of players jailed due to poverty was robbed of its original intent. Monopoly’s pro-capitalism theme that has been the result of family fights the world over has its origins as a socialist teaching tool. 

Storytelling in action

As tragic as The Landlord’s Game perversion into the godawful Monopoly of today is, its story shows that Magie created the game with intention and consideration, assured in the idea that mechanics translate into meaning on the table. Modern board games do the same, and some are exceptionally good at it. For instance, let’s look at Flamme Rouge, a game about racing bicycles in the early twentieth century.

In Flamme Rouge, each player controls a two-person cycling team, each with their own small deck of cards. At the beginning of each turn, the player draws cards for both of their cyclists and chooses one to play; the cards show how many spaces each cyclist can move, usually 3-7. Since played cards are permanently moved from the game, choosing the right one at the right time is crucial, and if at any point you are in a space on the board where there is no one directly in front of your cyclist, you add an “exhaustion card” in your deck which lets your figure move only two spaces.

On a purely mechanical level, Flamme Rouge excels as a short, simple game of tactical positioning. But as each player adds exhaustion cards to their decks and plastic cyclists fall behind or pull ahead, the game becomes something more cinematic. There’s exhilaration in trailing the pack only to slipstream behind your opponent and then pull ahead at the last minute. There’s excitement in drawing the right card to give you an extra boost down a hill, doubling your movement speed. There’s tragedy in maintaining a lead until all your hard work to remain in front left your cyclist too exhausted to make it across the finish line. All of this drama is built into the DNA of this rather simple game about movie plastic racers across a track.

Some games do this better than others, of course, and there’s no hard and fast rule on whether complex games are better at storytelling than simpler ones. What matters most, to me at least, is whether or not the moment-by-moment play leads to interesting board states. As I said in my first post of this series, the table is a medium for expression, a place where stories are told and our values are explored. Looking closely at the connection between gameplay mechanics–rolling dice, playing cards, moving figures across a board–and the story you create with the people at the table might just open your eyes to how expressive that space can be.