WarningFor those of you who read my blog but don't care about boardgames (or especially game theory), you may want to give this post a pass. It's rather long, and it covers some pretty niche subject matter.
For those of you who came to my blog for this article but are looking for more discussions of boardgames, tough luck. I've linked to several great ones, but this isn't specifically a gaming blog, and I've rarely posted about games here. However, I might have to change that for the future.
Okay, so, only the die-hards are left, right? Great! Let's get this show on the road!
Where to BeginFirst and foremost, if you haven't heard Mark Johnson's original podcast from Boardgames To Go, you need to listen to it before continuing. I don't want to rehash everything we said there; I'd rather concentrate on the comments we received online.
But I do want to level the playing field a little by mentioning some basic tenets of the discussion:
- All games are abstractions.
- Some games have strong themes.
- Not everyone agrees on which ones.
Meta-GamingBefore we go any further, I want to make a little aside to talk about my perspective. There are two things which I am pretty biased about which will come into play frequently in this discussion: cards and dice.
I read a wonderful book many years ago full of pop philosophy about post-modernism and metaphysics. It's called Reality Isn't What It Used to Be, and you can pick it up used for pennies on Amazon. I recommend it for a thought-provoking read, though I wonder if it now reads as dated or prescient.
Anyway, at one point in the book the author talks about how "meta" money is in the modern world. It began as pure barter and trade, my cow for your chickens. Then as gold and silver became valued, coinage could "represent" the actual commodities, thereby becoming "meta." Later, we developed paper currency, which represented the gold and silver, making it meta-meta. Now, we have credit cards and electronic payments in which case money is now meta-meta-meta! We have no trouble understanding all these levels of meaning for money. We just accept it and take it for granted (I have no doubt the author said it much better than I).
My point is, that's how I feel about cards and dice. They are so common as game mechanisms/mechanics that we don't think about how meta they are. (I actually had all of this in my notes for the podcast, but our conversation strayed, as good conversations often do.)
If you want randomness or luck in your game, dice are perfect. Want to change the odds? Go from 6- to 10- to 12- to 20-sided dice and beyond. Want to change the outcome? Use modifiers to add or subtract from the total. You can roll multiple dice or roll multiple times. Dice are incredibly flexible and useful in so many ways.
Cards, to me, represent choice. Yes, there is certainly still randomness and "luck of the draw," but having a hand of cards mitigates that. Most people think of cards only in the standard four-suited, 2-10, J, Q, K, A variety. But for those of us in this hobby, we know how much more they can be. Cards can represent anything! They can be actions you can perform, they can be places you can travel, they can be goods you can trade.
My point is, whenever I see cards or dice in a game, that's already one level of abstraction, of "meta-"phor.
Use Your WordsSo, as I said before, in my mind, theme is divided into two types, which I labeled "Metaphor" and "Narrative." I don't remember exactly how I described the difference in the podcast, but apparently I did a pretty poor job. Most people who commented disagreed more with the terminology than with the concept.
Over on Boardgamegeek, Mark Johnson started a poll to get his listeners' take on how games ranked in each category. Although the poll may have been misguided and not particularly helpful, the open forum discussion was great. I tried to address some of the questions, but I don't feel I did a very good job. Anyway, I want to quote how I described the difference there:
"I can think of many other ways to express what I was thinking. Theme as Story Telling and Theme as Learning Tool; Goal-oriented and Task-oriented; What and How.Those may not be perfect explanations either, but I just wanted to call attention to the simplified definitions. Narrative is what you are trying to do. Metaphor is how you go about doing it.
When I say, 'The goal of this game is to make your palace the most beautiful by hiring the best craftsmen, artisans, and materials available'-- That's narrative.
When I say, 'You need money to buy materials (represented by these cubes), which can be refined by craftsmen (exchanged for different cubes), and then put in your palace by artisans (exchange particular cube sets for cards of value)'-- That's metaphor."
Most people had problems with my use/definition of Metaphor. However, I want to call attention to Eryn Roston's fantastic post on his blog, The Magic Circle. He is one of the few people who really got what I was trying to say, but had a problem with the Narrative aspect of it. He clarified it very well like this:
"If Pettit's theory is to remain useful it needs further clarification. The narrative theme is ultimately the game's story and a story is based on the actions of it's characters. The narrative theme is not only the game's setting, but it's the actions afforded to the players within the course of play. If we accept that that narrative theme is not only "what this game is about" but also "what the players can do", we have a much more concrete way evaluating it, AND it can remain independent of metaphorical theme. It becomes a more powerful tool for evaluation."I like that a lot, and not just because he used the phrase "Pettit's theory."
However, like I said, most people had difficulty with my concept of metaphor. Chris Norwood tried to help me out with a post on his blog, GamerChris, in which he helps to redefine them:
Theme as Metaphor - a schema involving some out-of-game situation on which play is based. The degree to which knowledge about this schema will translate into understanding of the game determines the strength of the theme.I like both of these definitions as well. His phrase "out-of-game situation" leads me back to a comment made on the BGG poll by Snoozefest:
Theme as Narrative - the ability for play to create a story. The degree to which this story is compelling and memorable determines the strength of this theme.
"So you're saying that for these games, the mechanisms don't relate well to reality?"At first, I really didn't like that comment, and I replied in a rather snarky way (my apologies). However, the more I thought about what he was saying, the better I could understand what he meant. By the way, Snoozefest also has a cool podcast in which he "splains" rules to games.
What I finally concluded was that I was using the wrong words. Instead of "High" and "Low" metaphor, I really should be talking about "Appropriate" and "Inappropriate." Metaphors all relate to reality. That's pretty much what they do. But are the mechanisms appropriate to the actions they represent?
This particular discussion came up because of Twilight Struggle. To me, because of my bias towards cards explained above, choosing from a hand of cards to determine events is a very poor metaphor for performing actions at home and abroad to spread your political agenda. In reality, how would you know the outcome of events before you did them? How could you choose between events to make sure they occur in the right order? Don't get me wrong, I love Twilight Struggle. But I just think the metaphor is very weak, or to use the proper term, "inappropriate."
My friend Steve Bonario, who is part of my weekly game group, added this comment to the discussion:
"I like the concept of narrative as you discussed it in the podcast, but I prefer the axis of abstraction vs realism instead of metaphor, since all games are ultimately metaphors. And I don't think theme lies on the same axis as narrative, it's more of a separate 'property' of the game. I would put mechanical as the adjective on the other end of the axis from narrative. (A game like Hearts is almost purely mechanical; a game like Werewolf almost purely narrative; and theme is separate from both.)"That's a good observation, and it leads me pretty well into the next topic I want to discuss.
Axis of EvilI ran some of this by Mark Johnson in an email last week. Although he is far too polite to actually say so, I got the impression he thought I was going over the deep end. To him, my talk about two axes and quadrants and all that other nonsense will do more to confuse the issue than clarify it. Nevertheless, I'm going there anyway.
In my mind, the scales of theme as Metaphor and theme as Narrative run perpendicular to each other. I'd put Metaphor vertically, with Highly Appropriate at the top, and Very Inappropriate at the bottom. On the horizontal Narrative axis, I'd have Low (or pure Actions) on the left, and High (pure Storytelling) on the right. In my mind, this is all fairly clear. Unfortunately/Fortunately, the rest of the world doesn't live in my mind.
Again, back to the BGG poll, Frank Feldman put together this graphic:
It's not perfect (I don't like how he labeled the quadrants at all), but it's pretty much what I envisioned. Snoozefest commented that if all games fell basically upon that red line, then there really shouldn't be quadrants. He suggested moving the axes to produce a graph like this:
Now this one I didn't like at all. I was having trouble articulating why, until Snoozefest and Frank started talking about the 0,0 point on the axes, and the concept of "negative theme" on the first graph. Then it all became clear to me.
As I said at the beginning of the podcast, all games have theme, it's just a matter of degree. All games have both types of theme, just to varying degree. So instead of thinking of the grid as numbers (+5 x -3), try thinking of the grid as colors:Left to right is our old friend Roy G. Biv, and up and down is Black and White. No one would deny that any place on the grid isn't a color. The same should count for themes. The whole grid is theme, but they have different amounts of story and mechanisms.
So, a challenge I set for myself was to try to think of games that fell all over the grid. There are sections that are pretty sparse. Does this mean that my theory is wrong? Not necessarily. It could just be that games are better, more popular, stick around longer, if they fall into certain parameters.
If we say that a "Highly Appropriate" metaphor/mechanism relates very closely to reality, and an Inappropriate one does not, and a "Weak Narrative" means just basic, unconnected actions and "Strong" means a full story arc, what games can we describe?
Top Left: High App., Weak Narr.: This is the hardest one. I basically came up with Charades. Your actions are very similar to reality. However, the story of the game is to just guess clues to get points.I'm going to end this right here for a couple of reasons. 1) I can't remember everything else I was going to write, and 2) I'm really late for game night!
Bottom Left: Inapp., Weak Narr.: Almost all "abstract" games would fall here. Your actions don't represent anything, and the story is basically do what is necessary to win. Something like Yahtzee scores a little higher on metaphor simply because you are supposedly making Poker hands (which is funny, considering how "themeless" poker is).
Top Right: High App., Strong Narr.: This is the sweet spot. This is where you want your game to be. Let's say Reef Encounter.
Bottom Right: Inapp., Strong Narr.: This is where there's considerable debate. To me, Twilight Struggle would be here. Another perhaps more acceptable entry would be Tales of the Arabian Nights.
The whole point of the podcast was to spark discussion, and on that point at least, I think we succeeded. I just love to think and talk about board games, so thank you all for indulging me.