John Romero, creator of the massively influential 1993 PC game DOOM, once famously mused: "Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It's expected to be there, but it's not that important." The analogy is crude, but he had a point.
How times have changed; video games now frequently feature stories and characters that surpass Hollywood blockbusters. Modern AAA video games give novels a run for their money in terms of sheer narrative content, if not quality.
Board games appear to be at a similar crossroads. The golden age of tabletop is upon us and with it has come a plethora of popular games that put storytelling front and center. Other times, though, themes appear to be slapped onto game mechanics in a way that is neither natural nor organic.
Is storytelling becoming a necessity in modern board games, or are themes and narratives being tacked on unnecessarily simply to keep up with the trends and stand out in the crowd? Nonstop Tabletop examines.
Does Story Matter in Board Games?
First, a side note: Role-Playing Games, a genre defined by heavy reliance on storytelling, have been around since Dungeons and Dragons hit the scene in the 70's. Though there are many similarities between these games and what we commonly refer to as board games, we believe that they belong in a separate, but related, category for a myriad of reasons. Like so many things in the tabletop world, the line is rapidly blurring, but we'll put RPGs aside for the purposes of this discussion. This website just isn't that hardcore (we're hardcore casual).
Argument: Why Story Doesn't Really Matter In Board Games
Much like the videogames of yesteryear, story in most board games can be summed up by a quick paragraph at the beginning of the instruction manual that looks something like this: "You're an interstellar asteroid miner. Compete to get more gold than the space fascists, but be careful not to run out of air or take in too much space radiation." If Asteroid Miners: The Board Game hasn't been made already, there's a free story for someone to use. We'll back the KickStarter.
Take a closer look at this proposed game though, and these hypothetical space miners could be reskinned a variety of different ways: Maybe they are medieval mountain climbers looking for magical crystals. They could be turn-of-the-century British grave robbers, trying to get the most jewelry and gold fillings without getting caught by the town constable. They could even be elite athletes striving for Gold Medals at the Olympics. It could be absolutely anything. With quality components and artwork, the underlying game would not differ much with any of these themes (see the great continental debate on Eurogames vs. so-called Ameritrash Games.)
No other game has had more criticism using this argument than Dominion, the hugely successful card game that gave rise to the deck-building genre of board games. Though some of the expansions have helped somewhat, this game may be the best example of an extremely flimsy connection between story and gameplay mechanics. When it comes down to it, Dominion cards are nothing but a set of instructions and a couple of in-game currencies. One card lets you draw a few more, another lets you trash a few you don't want and yet another lets you buy a few more things with your currency this round. It could throw away the medieval theme and be about Asteroid Miners and absolutely nothing would change.
Dominion was a juggernaut because of innovative and addictive game mechanics, no story or theme required. Any more attention to story would have been mere lip service that would have stood in the way of the gameplay.
We may even be getting ahead of ourselves using the word "story" to begin with. Distilled to their essence, "stories" in most board games would be best described as simple "themes." And those themes are absolutely irrelevant in the vast majority of cases.
Argument: Why Story Absolutely Matters In Board Games
Fine, the theme in Dominion was tacked-on, but that's a flaw with Dominion, not a condemnation of story in board games in general. For every Dominion, there are countless examples of games that use story and theme so effectively that the game simply could exist without them.
How could Mysterium possibly exist as anything other than a haunted house mystery game? Could Secret Hitler function as anything other than a warning against the rise of fascism? Would Twilight Struggle be a top contender for Greatest Board Game of All Time without the cold war-era politics?
Perhaps the best example is none other than Pandemic (be sure to check out our comprehensive guide and review for everything Pandemic-related), the smash-hit game that introduced cooperative games to the mainstream.
In Pandemic, a team of researchers, medical personnel and government response teams race across the globe in a frantic attempt to stop the spread of and ultimately cure four deadly disease outbreaks. The diseases, represented by colored cubes, progressively infect major cities on a world map in a manner familiar to anyone who has ever watched a disaster movie or worst-case epidemic projections on a 24-hour cable news network. The chaos and paranoia of exponential growth is chilling when playing this game. The mechanics and the theme are inseparably intertwined and neither would work without the other. Period.
And that's just covering theme without even getting into true storytelling with campaign-based games, Legacy Games and board games with storytelling elements like Betrayal at House on the Hill and Above and Below. Story matters, and you're cheating yourself by playing games that get mechanics right, but skimp on story when there are so many great games out there now that do both.
We're copping out here by taking the middle road. Story and theme are absolutely integral in some games, leading to mechanics that could not exist without them. In others, a great theme/story can bring a game from good to great. Similarly, a bad theme can sink otherwise fun mechanics.
On the other hand, there are games out there that feature mechanics that could be skinned in thousands of conceivable ways, some better than others, but all amounting to nothing more than window dressing. Let's go back to DOOM (which also has an excellent board game version) for a second. You're on Mars. Demons are invading. You have access to a shotgun and rocket launcher. What else do you need to know?
To a large degree, this comes down to player preference. Some players want the immersion that a great story and theme can offer. Others just want fun mechanics. Either way, we're in the board game land of plenty now, so there's no reason to have to choose. There are plenty of games that deliver great stories and themes tied to fun, addictive mechanics. What's better than that?
Article by The Happy Strategerist, who is busy figuring out how to make Asteroid Miners: The Board Game happen.
What do you think? Is story necessary for a good tabletop experience, or are you annoyed by the window dressing that distracts from fun gameplay? What's the best example of mechanics and story entwined together? Let us know in the comments below.