Emotion is quite often the measurement of success, or failure in any given artifact of entertainment It’s important to note that I am specifically talking about entertainment and not necessarily works of art here. Entertainment is just about always a form of art, but art is not always entertaining. Generally speaking, if one does not enjoy entertainment on some level, it fails to be what it claims to be. Art on the other hand can be uncomfortable to the point of being offensive. It can be the farthest thing from entertainment, but remain art. People tend to enjoy emotions the way you might enjoy an ice cream flavor. Maybe today you’re feeling like having a laugh, but tomorrow you’d like to be frightened, all within the safe confines of entertainment. Movies are a fantastic example of this. Most movies released in theaters, even ones with incredibly somber themes, are entertaining. This is true for music, video games, even books but rarely board games. Full disclosure, this topic piqued my interest after Ludology episode 133 in which Mike Fitzgerald, Geoff Engelstein and Mike Engelstein discuss whether or not a board game can make you cry. Some emotions are easily evoked from board games, but they stem from the experience of the mechanics rather than the story contained within them. Specifically, I want to continue the question from that episode and give my own ideas on how it might be possible for a board game to bring out that type of emotion from a player.
Games can be frustrating to lose and elating to win, depending on how engrossing the competition. The final moments can cause emotions to spike, but rarely do you hear of a game bringing about the weight of other mediums of entertainment. Obviously these other mediums are far better equipped to manipulate emotions on a story based level. Books give the reader hours to build worlds in their imaginations. Hours to draw close to character and empathize with their fear, pain and hope. Music is deeply tied to emotion, something that has been culturally ingrained since the beginning of recorded history. Movies are an all encompassing experience, designed to captivate your primary senses, forcibly drawing you into a world that is filled with exposition, music, story and emotion. Time dedicated solely to create empathy is a luxury rarely afforded to board games. Certainly Legacy games attempt to encapsulate this, and story telling games are becoming more and more popular with the likes of Near and Far and Mansions of Madness 2nd edition, while this may be all engrossing for some players, I have yet to hear of tears being shed in either of these games due to their emotional weight. The issue is that primarily when you open a box containing a board game, you are given the supplies to set up a world in which a goal must be achieved.
With the creativity and ingenuity of the board game community, I have a hard time believing that this level of emotion can’t be achieved, it just hasn’t been mastered yet. I’d like to offer some thoughts on what might assist a game in reaching that emotional level. Whether or not it would be beneficial or profitable is another matter altogether.
- Make a quick connection to the player.
One giant step for a game to be successful in making an emotional connection, is relatability. This is something that is vital in most entertainment, but in particular movies. If you have no connection to the hero is directly related to your investment in their well being. Viticulture has you moving a few meeples around to grow grapes, which is fun, but hardly something to get choked up over. You have to like or at least be familiar with the emotional struggle that you’re interacting with. This War of Mine: The Board Game does this right off the bat with its premise. As a group of survivors in a war torn region, players can relate to this because they have a vast amount of history as well as world news events to substantiate and emphasize the severity and reality of this theme. War is hell. Not everyone that dies is a soldier. Players are thrust into a world that isn’t fair that is full of lost innocence and that is familiar and eye opening. Ducklings, by Deckhead Games is another example of something even more relatable; cute little animals pitted against the cruelty of nature. In this 2v2 game, teams play as two parent ducks attempting to move their family to a new location. As they move they’re faced difficult decisions, knowing that there is very little chance that their entire family will survive the trip. These cute little animals are going to die. Your children are going to die. It’s a heavy handed attempt at evoking emotion, but for me it works, at least on some level. I’d be lying if I said that the first time I cried in a cartoon WASN’T the animated Beatrix Potter story Jemima Puddleduck. This isn’t a recommendation or review of either game, but an example of a strong theme with appropriate art tugging the relatable and appropriate heart strings to steer a game in the right direction. WIth such a limited scope of time and sensory attention, games can benefit greatly by drawing from players vast pools of personal experience and biases. The investment in characters or creatures needs to be quickly recognized and not bogged down by complicated mechanisms. This brings me to my second suggestions for this kind of game.
- Don’t sacrifice emotional sway for mechanical complexity.
It’s a difficult balance. You need to make the game deep enough to get involved in, but if it’s fiddly to the point where you’re abstracting the emotionally crippling decisions you need to make into sliding a cube from one circle to another, you’re not going to make anyone cry…which is the goal, right? Dead of Winter does this well in that it lets you make choices. Each player is given a small group of survivors to tend to, then distrust is seeded among the players. Further, you’re given Cross Road Cards that thrust you into the world of the game and give you even more decisions to make. Even in that game however, it’s easy to look at it purely from a mechanical standpoint of ‘what needs to be done to accomplish my goal?”. The game needs to flow intuitively so as not to obstruct the connection a player has with the emotional engine. Again, this is dire as the majority of games don’t come with a soundtrack or hours worth of exposition. Even D&D campaigns can be emotionally distant to players beyond accomplishing the goal. It may also be tempting to use complicated mechanisms to slowly build emotion. Again, this is a board game and doesn’t have the same toolset that other mediums have. A slow building board game with an intimate theme runs the risk of being boring, which is the opposite of what you should be going for.
- Get creative.
Each year is bringing about a ton of interesting and creative additions to board game designs. Colt Express has that awesome 3D train, Genres are being mixed, mobile apps are being incorporated to make games run smoother and create an atmosphere. Escape:The Curse of the Temple does a fantastic job of eliciting an emotional response out of players. A timer is an easy way to make someone frantic, but mixing it with both the theme of trying to escape as a group AND throwing in a nerve-wracking soundtrack, it’s an entirely unique experience. It’s exciting and gets your heart pumping and it’s what a game probably should be: fun. Because of this creativity and ingenuity, I’m confident that we can and will see designs that will bring about a wider range of responses on the emotional scale. It won’t be the kind of thing for everyone, but it’s something I welcome, if for nothing else than to see what the hobby is capable of. Thinking outside the box (sometimes literally) is not just a necessity for emotional game design, it’s a necessity for all game design.
This isn’t a comprehensive list to game designers of what needs to be done in order to make a game more emotional weighty. Rather, this is a sampling of ideas and musings. Attempting to manipulate emotions is tricky, take it too far and it can be crass and offensive, don’t go far enough and it’s boring. This is a hobby that’s rapidly growing and changing and getting better. I’m excited at the types of advancements we’re going to see in the coming years and how they’ll take place.