The Kingmaker – Let’s talk about Board Games, Theme & Mechanics

  1. Mechanics and how they tie to a Game’s Theme is something I really love about Board Games, and it’s amazing when these elements interweave. This blog is often going to indulge on these topics while taking a look into the Side Quest of Board Game Design. I also drool over Negotiations, Diplomacy and Intrigue – both in SCI-FI and Medieval settings – and daydream about how such things may be transferred to BGs through mechanics – so we’ll likely talk about Medieval\SCI-FI stuff as well.

This is the first entry in a series of articles that I’ll write mostly concerning thematic games, how mechanics tie to their theme, and Game Design.

The first rant

More or less a month ago I compared 8 well-known games in this review. For those of you who haven’t read it, the games are:

– A Game of Thrones the Board Game
– Fief 1492
– Twilight Imperium
– Rex Final days of an Empire/Dune
– Warrior Knights
– Rising Sun
– Patchistory
– Archipelago

… and this post (#2 of my Blog), is a continuation of the topic.

Thematic games tie you with the character you are playing

I was looking at the negotiation/diplomacy aspect and how the mechanics allow the player to negotiate in a spontaneous way, and how they tie the player to the character they are playing.
You might have noticed that I did not assign any 10/10 to those games. While I think some of them excel, I believe something is still missing. Even though playing a negotiation game may entail roleplaying your character, I believe most Negotiation Games miss mechanics that guide the players to roleplay: that is, assigning a role or traits to a character and guiding the player to follow that role/traits through the right mechanics. There are games where players have variable powers, or where story-telling is added to provide background and setting, but I wish for something more.

To explain: suppose we are playing one of those Medieval games where shared victory is viable. And suppose it’s the last round of the game; me and you are in an alliance, and we are about to win the game as a team of two.
But, all of a sudden, you see the chance to betray me: one of my strongholds is devoid of defenses and with a clever move you may take hold of it. That’s thrilling… and if you decide to betray me, you’d win alone and probably be congratulated from the other players for the clever move which granted you the victory alone. I would even congratulate with you, cause “hey, that’s the spirit”.

But here’s the problem. On our very next game it will be a bit hard for me to trust you again, cause in the past game you betrayed me right at the last turn (this means that for other people it could be impossible to join sides with you again for a couple of games, to say the least).

Leaving the hurt feelings aside, this could lead to some sad metagaming such as “I will join you only if you promise you will not betray me this time, let’s seal this with a handshake”; which actually really turns off any fun.

But what if – for example – you had a card, or a hidden objective to ally with me and betray me before the last turn? I would understand that you betrayed me cause you had that card. You betrayed me ’cause on that specific game you had to. So the next game I might be tempted to trust you again, cause maybe this time you’ll have some other reasons to stay true to your promise.

This is an extreme example. I don’t want a game to fully define how you should play – let alone betraying or not your ally. But let’s exploit a bit this example… and add some background:

Suppose my House and yours have a long story of conflict, our Families have fought for control of the land for long – even reciprocally killing some of our offspring. There’s hatred between my Household and yours.

Now with this background, in a Thematic game, the fact that you have a card that pushes you to betray me has much more sense. And if your character were a vengeful one, your action would totally be justified; thus not influencing the next game, where you may play a forgiving character.

Which side will be yours, this time?

Here’s where the idea of adding mechanics that support roleplay came to mind. I wish the story-telling aspect were almost totally brought to life by the players, by conflicts between one another, by alliances, by personal/secret objectives, by how they decide how and when to stay true to their background or how and when to deviate from it. And we need mechanics strictly integrated to the theme, to bring all of this to life.

Many issues arise with this design. Some I might think of:

  • You shouldn’t be forced to play exactly this or that way. The game should only encourage a course of action motivated by traits/background of the character. For example: in RPGs if you are playing a Lawful Good character, then you are encouraged to behave and roleplay following the LG alignment. If you do something totally Evil for a situational benefit, then the Game Master may penalize you with a consistent loss of Experience Points. This could be replicated in Board Game form with some sort of reward/penalty for following (or not) your alignment/traits.
  • The good/bad traits shouldn’t be too extreme (being forced to be mean ain’t fun). E.g. the “bad” King/Ruler could be greedy, thus more tempted/encouraged to tax the land; while the “good” Ruler could be pushed to invest some more in promoting agricultural improvement/technology advancement.
    • The point above brings to: traits should not only be good/bad but manifold – and balanced
  • The whole system should be approachable even by non-RPG players, at least to the extent that negotiation-heavy games can be approached by people who struggle with negotiations; or at least it should help a bit those players who struggle to roleplay (on the understanding that if roleplay/negotiations is not your cup of tea, you should rather play something else)
  • The alignment/traits of a character shouldn’t totally be unknown to the other players. Take Game of Thrones for example, you know that you probably can trust the Stark, but less so the Lannister, but you may be tempted to trust a Lannister because of their influence.
    • There should be some rewards for trusting someone that’s hard to trust
    • There should be some rewards for being the Good Guy which does not betray and does good to everybody
    • There should be many phases where the player has chances to behave according to his traits (not just the extreme betray card in the example above) -> this leads to mechanics integrated with the theme.

And this is just my first rant about it.

Please feel free to comment and add any thought that’s on your mind.


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