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The Concept of Story

J Updated
The concept of story
There Will Be Games

Do your favorite games produce a story and does it matter?

What's often lauded as "The Difference" between what are nominally called Eurogames (think Reiner Knizia) and Ameritrash (think Talisman) is the concept of story. The latter tend to tell them, while the former tend not to. What I mean by "story" is that recounting a game to someone else, whether present or not, is often like telling a story. I usually cite Talisman as an example because it's clearly set up to function in that fashion and because I once used a great story of one of my games to convince a friend who was then an RPG-only player to give it a try. He specifically marveled at the fact that "a board game could tell stories like this!", as if it were some incredible possibility. And, to someone raised on games like Sorry! and the oft-maligned Monopoly, it probably was an instance where the idea of getting something more out of a play- and, in fact, something quite close to an RPG experience -just wasn't something he'd ever considered. The story I told him was that I'd gone into a Talisman game with a regular opponent who was determined to beat me (I was mildly infamous in our group for being the regular winner at that particular game.) He had a plan all set up. He started as the Troll, built up his Strength, found the Ancient Artifact, turned it in at the City to become the Archmage, built up his Craft, and then started smashing his way around the board. By that time, two other players had died and given up, while I had died as the Sprite and was on my second hero, the Leprechaun. As he moved to the Portal of Power, I delayed him for a couple turns by casting Hex on it and then asked him why he didn't just come hunt me down and win, especially because I'd done just that in our previous game, by slaughtering everyone with a Runesword-equipped Rogue. He said: "No! I'm going to win the right way!" So, I shrugged and continued to mill around, doing minor things to progress while he ran riot through the top level, and finally picked up the ending card. He then promptly stormed out of the room after falling into the Horrible Black Void, leaving me as the only player left on the board...

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You're probably not going to get a story like that out of a play of Through the Desert because TtD just isn't that type of game. Talisman is set up to tell stories like that through rolls of dice, card draws (Drew a Dragon as your first encounter and lost a Life point? Sorry 'bout yer luck!), and other random events that a lot of people don't like. Through the Desert functions with almost perfect information. You're going to win or not win based on your own efforts and the actions of the opposition, not because someone drew the worst possible ending for a game and lost just by a turning over a card when they were clearly the superior character. But moments like that in Talisman are the stories that will last for years (said game happened 28 years ago), whereas I can't tell you what precisely happened in my last game of Through the Desert that took place two months ago (I know I won, but that's about it.) I'll likely never forget that game of Talisman because that's what the game is designed to do. That doesn't mean the game itself is better. Indeed, I don't think there's any comparison, mechanically, between a game like Talisman and a game like TtD. The latter is clearly the better game mechanically, but the two games are set up to provide a different experience. It's like the difference between subtle humor and shock humor. One is enjoyable because it's usually a good insight into a situation. The other is enjoyable because it's a surprise that often flusters or unnerves you. Most have a preference for one or the other, but still enjoy the alternative to a degree. And this also isn't a declarative that non-Ameritrash games can't tell stories.

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Think of abstracts like chess or poker. There are lengthy stories that can be told about good chess matches, like in The Queen's Gambit. Similarly, legendary poker games can be the foundation of films like Rounders. Both of those examples work because of the high tension involved in their situations and because those games are often as much about playing the opponent as they are the game itself. This is the root of the Euro fan argument about "skill" being more important in games like Taj Mahal. If you're all playing with the same pieces, then the way you use those pieces is supposed to demonstrate your playing ability in comparison to those playing with you. But that, of course, isn't wholly accurate. Taj Mahal still involves a random card draw and games like Tigris and Euphrates also involve a random draw, just like Talisman. Furthermore, the way you deal with random events or hedge your bets in taking risks in Talisman is every bit the gaming skill that picking the right spot for a palace in Taj is or in knowing how to play your bet in a poker hand. Those, too, are moments of story. They're just less obvious than squaring off with the Demon Lord at the top of the Talisman mountain.

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Modern design has followed that path, with more mechanically-sound games that can still evoke those "Remember when...?" moments on a regular basis. Take Champions of Midgard as an example. It's one of the most worker-placementy of worker placement games, but it's also about Vikings fighting mythological creatures. It also involves dice(!), the longstanding black spot of supposed Eurogamers because of their inherently random nature. But, again, just as with Games Workshop games, rolling a fistful of dice means planning beforehand such that even a poor roll will often gain you the result that you wanted, anyway. That, too, is a gaming skill. Also, dice inherently create those moments of story because of the tension and uncertainty that they generate. But even games with almost-perfect information can still create those moments. Our most recent game of Pax Pamir, 2nd Ed. was a good example. Late in the game, a Dominance Check card had emerged in the market, which would've been an ideal get for two players supporting the Russians, as the yellow pieces were everywhere on the board. But a player supporting the British decided to play Prince Akbar Khan, switching his allegiance to the Afghans and changing the favored suit to Military, which doubled the price of that Dominance card, putting it beyond the reach of the Russian players. It was also a huge risk to his own position, since it wiped a couple British cards from his court and put a Persian tribe in a precarious spot. But with the Prince, he later used its two spies and double combat ability to sabotage his opponents and pick up the Dominance card himself for a win with the Afghans. There was no randomness involved. Just smart play.

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But even beyond player-created moments, let's think about modern "Euro" games that generate story just based on their setting and characters (like Talisman.) A great example is Spirit Island. Mechanically, it's difficult to consider Spirit Island anything but a "Euro". It's a process game. It has multiple intricate systems that have little to do with randomness (outside of the Event deck and what Minor and Major powers show up in their respective decks.) But it's hard to imagine a game where players are Shadows Flicker Like Flame, Lure of the Deep Wilderness, and Ocean's Hungry Grasp competing with the Hapsburg Monarchy and using powers like Rain of Blood and Gift of Living Energy as anything but a story waiting to be told. Who's going to forget that time when the English had almost overrun the island with cities and Blight before Finder of Paths Unseen used Vengeance of the Dead to claw out a Fear victory at the last minute? Obviously, there's a lot more storytelling texture in a game like Spirit Island than there is in a game like T&E, but in the latter you will always find the back-and-forth struggle over cities and a moment where a properly played Catastrophe that might've prevented the addition of one more point in someone's smallest VP total... Yeah. There are stories there. (It also kind of belies the "pasted on theme" label that tends to follow Knizia around.)

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An interesting contrast is a game like Shakespeare. The game, of course, is based on the Bard of Avon, one of the foundation stones to storytelling in the Western tradition. But it's also a fairly intricate engine builder that doesn't create obvious "Aha!" moments that might be considered something to retell at a later date. A lot of the people you employ/activate for your tableau aren't anyone notable other than Set Designer, so you aren't fully in a stylized role as in Spirit Island, although you do have access to many of Bill's famous characters who do different things somewhat based on their roles in the plays. Furthermore, it's a very technical situation, in which you're trying to balance prestige points (VP), money, and action efficiency. All of that can be a story-generating device, but is often more like figuring out a puzzle in the midst of a group of people (aka multiplayer solitaire), which doesn't often lend itself to those memorable moments. Unless Romeo was devastating for you in any particular game, it won't be like referring back to that time you played Calavera, Eagle, and Wengsi Wong versus Gluttony in a game of The Others.

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The irony of a game about Shakespeare tending to not produce a storytelling moment is pretty thick. But that game isn't really designed to be that kind of exercise, in the same way that games like Power Grid aren't. In truth, the real generator of stories is often the players themselves. Not every session of any game is going to generate a story. I have most of my plays of Talisman recorded (What characters were played, who won, etc.), but I can look at any number of them and not really recall any specific details about them. That doesn't mean they didn't generate a story. It just means that it wasn't a memorable one. The fact that you can go through a number of plays of Modern Art or Agricola without having their details surge forward in your head the next time you get people together to play doesn't mean that they didn't leave an impression on someone who was at the table. They might not occur to you because you didn't win. But someone did and someone probably remembers.

There Will Be Games
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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Whoshim's Avatar
Whoshim replied the topic: #323767 07 Jun 2021 08:16
Nice article! I was actually thinking about the same thing the other day and was going to submit a post about it (not to the depth of this article). I think that games can give us enjoyment during three times: before (MtG, Warhammer), during (most, but not all - for example, the games about the slave ships and Nazi death camp trains), and after (as mentioned in your article).

Games that offer enjoyment before are the ones that build up communities (and this includes abstracts like Shogi, Chess, and Go, which can be studied before/after playing). You covered games that offer enjoyment afterward in your article.

I personally like games that have communities and those that allow for stories that are remembered long afterward. I was typing my post as I was thinking about Warmaster, the old Games Workshop game that Mezike gave me. I will still submit my post on that in the near future, but you have saved me a lot of effort in writing it, as I can just reference this article. :) It is a game that provides nearly all of its enjoyment in the post-game time period.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #323768 07 Jun 2021 08:36
Thanks! That's a great point. I agree that GW games can give the 'before' (planning, strategizing) impact, but you're right that the majority of their impact comes from the story you can look back on afterwards. Although I played a lot of tournaments with 40K and Fantasy, my best experiences with GW were the campaigns we played, as that really wove us into the epic tale that GW has built around their properties.

That's a great pickup with Warmaster. My all-time favorite game from GW is Epic Armageddon, but Warmaster isn't far behind.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323772 07 Jun 2021 10:49
Story games, to me, are the ones designed to generate a narrative by putting the player into a specific character or small set of identified characters, to force empathy and projection onto the game. RPGs are the ultimate manifestation of this, a total abstract like Go the other extreme.

Sure, you can recite in game events into some sort of linear account, but it's the personification of the game that sells it for me. -I- took the hammer of the gods and smote the bad guy, not my blue pawns moved to all the red spaces which slid the threat indicator low enough to trigger the end game score tally.

I see this in video games as well. My kid plays a lot of roblox and fortnite. You can see some effort by the devs to insert story into these games, but it is rudimentary at best. The focus is all on the PLAYER, their skills, their loot inventory; not the CHARACTER and their abilities and earned equipment or in game relationships.

I think a really strong mechanic (be it video game platforming or tight intense board war game rules for 2 players) can definitely elevate a game above the need for story because then it becomes all about the player skill or interplayer struggle, but otherwise a good story producing theme/set dressing can elevate so-so mechanics into a synergistic experience that rises far above the rule set.

I'd almost argue that overly complex mechanics or "sterile" number crunching works AGAINST story telling, something like Mage Knight compared to Runebound.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #323774 07 Jun 2021 10:56
Excellent article. For me, the "stories" that get remembered are entirely player driven, not dictated by paragraphs on a card or in a book.

The time my buddy Clint continually rained fire down on all of us, including himself, in Lords of Hellas, just because he could.

The first time my group played the production copy of SEAL Team Flix, and I accidentally shot the hostage we were about to rescue.

The time my girlfriend backstabbed her "girl power alliance" in Cosmic Encounter in order to secure a victory for herself.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #323775 07 Jun 2021 11:25
Sure. One of the stories that will constantly emerge whenever someone mentions Runebound to one of my groups is the time that one player (Elliott) ambushed another player (Leigh) and stole her Rage Blade, only to lose it on his very next encounter with a Blue challenge because it was his most expensive item. She's never forgiven him. I don't remember ANYTHING about the rest of that game (except that I won it, but that kinda happened a lot...) but that story sticks out and Leigh will never let anyone else forget it. That's totally player-driven.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323776 07 Jun 2021 11:25
See, I say for the hostage bit that IS game driven story telling. If it was just red pawns shooting blue pawns but don't hit the yellow pawns then that tense shot flick that went horribly wrong OH NO YOU SHOT THE DAMNED HOSTAGE!! wouldn't be nearly as memorable.

Game story that isn't dependent on player action is just a novel. Game story MAKES player action worthwhile outside of just win/lose.

But Cosmic is a great example of a game design that sure has a theme or something but it's the players that make it great. Like Chess or poker, the art aesthetic of the pieces is a distant second to the direct player interaction.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #323781 07 Jun 2021 13:40
I usually require at least a semblance of a narrative in a boardgame. Without a sense of story, a game can feel like merely a dry set of procedures, and I get enough of that from my accounting job. I do enjoy Acquire, but probably just out of nostalgia since my late father was such a huge Acquire fan.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #323782 07 Jun 2021 14:47
I'm just going to throw this out there (should probably write an article on it instead) -- narrative doesn't come from thematics, doesn't come from mechanics. Rather it comes from how a game changes over the lifespan of a single play, or even the lifespan of multiple plays. A game gets story by how your goals and capabilities change as play progresses.

I've always said that good games have good post-game shows, the discussion you have as you're bagging up the pieces and grabbing the next title. A game like Chess can have one hell of a narrative because it's a game where one player can be on the offensive or defensive, can do something surprising or innovative, and can push a game from mid-game play into end-game play through the choices they make. As a package Chess is cold as a stone and static, but the way the game's state changes over time puts a narrative aspect into the play.

Talisman for all of its tchotchke gets narrative from your character's growth over the length of the play. Your ability to change your goals and approaches is what gives the game its story, not the fact that THIS time it's a werewolf.

So games like Settlers have story, while games like Through the Desert (a fine choice to illustrate the point by the way) do not. Engine builders typically have story, a changing arc of capabilities and options, and I think that's a reason why they are more popular in spite of their spartan appearance and approach to play.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #323784 07 Jun 2021 15:42
That would be an awesome article, almost a required part of "how to make a (good) game".

I think theme helps tremendously in tying game events into a memorable pattern in our heads. You gotta REALLY grok chess before you can sit back after a match and discuss how that knight to queen 4 almost checked your king but you escaped it with a rook to bishop 7 followed by the Linderman defense that foiled the Putin attack and hah hah hah aren't we cultured and sophisticated!!!

I could say the same for Power Grid, I remember who won and maybe a particular bastard thief who took the 5 power solar plant I WANTED and whom I later soaked in a run over the last couple uranium barrels, but rarely does the game create a cohesive story.

Versus a game of Talisman when almost any player remembers getting curb stomped by some crappy dice rolls and dying in some awesome fashion, can probably string together 3 or 4 big moments in the game, and describe how their character evolved. The theme enhances memory and narrative.

Not to say that every game needs this, far from it, but it would be foolish to discount the value of story, even if it is just little snippets of lore or trivia in the margins of cards. I've played a LOT of games (typically euro) that would have benefitted mightily from stuff like that, even if, over time, I played the game so much that the mechanics and challenge alone were enough to sustain interest.

Who doesn't get a little sense of satisfaction placing your caveman meeples in Stone Age in the love shack or wandering out into the field to gather berries, fish, or game? Just that simple bit of art and token design tells a story and IMHO greatly enhances what would otherwise be a fairly dry dice rolling exercise. That stupid smelly leather dice cup alone triggers warm memories of that game and evokes theme.
drewcula's Avatar
drewcula replied the topic: #323797 08 Jun 2021 08:54
Popping in to say this post and its comments are great. Well done!