The Story in the Cards
There’s been a dramatic increase in “story-driven” board games in the last year, including games like TIME Stories and Pandemic Legacy, but what’s driving this renewed consumer interest in interactive storytelling?
It’s not to say that storytelling games are new - they’ve been around in one form or another for decades. Great examples include games where storytelling is an explicit focus, recent classics like Tales of the Arabian Nights or Agents of SMERSH come to mind. Others include games that ship with a storyline, RPGs in a box like Descent: Journeys in the Dark or Mice and Mystics both involve a lot of flavor text to help set the mood of the game and encourage their players to slip into the roles of their characters while playing.
Look further down the rabbit hole and you’ll find games that are so thematic and engaging that you can’t help but imagine the circumstance you’ve found yourself in. I’ve found myself explaining to others the circumstance in which my investigator found themselves detained in Arkham with a gaping leg wound and a touch of insanity. Or how about the feelings of your house sheep as you and your significant other “take a family planning action”? Even the terms in which two settlers found themselves bickering over the recent sheep-to-brick conversion rate.
Even euro games are trying to get in on the fun, with additions like Above and Below blending classic worker placement and engine building mechanics with an engaging “exploration” action which uses random paragraphs of flavor text to immerse players in the world your refugee villagers have found themselves in.
It’s no wonder the recent wave of story-driven games has taken such a successful hold on the general board gaming populous. To the point where Pandemic Legacy holds a firm grip on the top spot on Board Game Geek! Another successfully story-driven game, an eagerly awaited 7th Continent had 12,000 backers raising over $1.8 million CAD.
Of course this genre of gaming comes with its own problems. Like a movie or storyline-heavy video game, once you’ve experienced a story it’s hard to be surprised the 2nd time, since you know what’s coming. Unlike a movie however, some of these games can’t easily be re-experienced – in a format where you’re expected to have your choices tested, your gameplay go much smoother the 2nd time around.
TIME Stories actively embraces this with its time-travelling gameplay; you’re basically expected to fail the first time you play a scenario. Once you fail, however, you’re sent back to the start of the game, armed with the knowledge from your previous “run”; the choices you’ve made, the items you’ve found, and the goals you’ve uncovered. This makes for a very unique (and very engaging!) board game experience.
Unfortunately, once you’ve “solved” a scenario, it’s fairly trivial to play through it again. Part of the reason TIME Stories works the way it does requires players to go into each scenario with little-to-no knowledge of what’s coming up. Short of attempting a “speed run” for your own personal challenge, there’s no value in partaking in a scenario more than once. Luckily Space Cowboys has committed to delivering a scenario once a quarter for the next year at least, so there’s always something to come back to.
Other games have an even bigger problem; the controversial “Legacy” format that requires to permanently alter the board. Risk Legacy was one of the first examples of this, but it’s definitely become more well-known with the recent Pandemic Legacy release.
Legacy games require players to permanently alter their personal copy of the game. This is often done by placing permanent stickers onto the board or cards, adding or removing components, and even destroying cards and playing pieces. These actions are often done without advance notice; usually triggered by some in-game condition such as “When all minor cities are founded” or “Before you start your 2nd game”. As you can imagine, playing through the game once will effectively remove the element of surprise that the Legacy games thrive on.
But the biggest offender of legacy games seems to be the concept that a board game is “consumable”. Unlike most board games that can be re-played as often as you’d like, legacy games can be “finished”. This concept seems to ruffle feathers across the community, but the common defense of “$80 for 12 to 24 hours of entertainment” seems to hold up well, particularly if you split the cost amongst the players.
In any case, these story-driven epics are definitely gaining popularity, and despite the changes they introduce to the “norm” of board gaming I find them a welcome addition. Now if you’ll excuse me while I camp outside Comic Readers waiting for A Prophecy of Dragons :)