The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Game Theory 101 - Part I

Jonathan Degann

October, 2003

Tell Me A Story. How a story arc helps make a game great. 

Gaming magazines and websites are rich with game reviews that tell us about what made that game great. There has been very little written more generally about the art of the game. What are the characteristics of games that elevate a fun pastime into a rich experience? In this series of articles called "Game Theory" I will look at some great games in the same ways that people have looked at movies, music and books to find those special qualities that make a game extraordinary. The inferior examples of games I'll use in this series are perfectly good games, but ones that lack the spark that these qualities provide.

Story Arc

What I call Story Arc in a game is the quality of having the situations and decisions metamorphose during the course of a single game so that the player has the experience of participating in a story with a wide sweep. When a game has a beginning, middle and an end, it is more than just a series of decisions. The entire game is an adventure in which the players and the pieces are characters.

A game does not need a theme to have a Story Arc. The story comes from the changing demands that the players face as their positions develop. Three games that exemplify this are Puerto Rico, Durch die Wüste and Acquire. This diversity and richness of experience in each of these games come from its Story Arc, and this is one of the things that separates the great games from the good ones.

Playing Puerto Rico lets you feel as though you've lived through an entire family saga of immigrating to a rough land and building an empire on it. Within the first two turns of Puerto Rico, players are forced to consider their unique assets in addressing their relationships with their opponents. You may be able to take two corn plantations and gain points while opponents are still trying to buy and man their buildings. You may be able to take a coffee plantation - but now need to develop a plan to exploit it before your opponents overtake you with a few quick sales, or force your coffee onto a ship. The opening turns of Puerto Rico are a mini-game as players build their infrastructure, and establish the set of plantations, cheap buildings, and quarries, which will define their relative strengths for the rest of the game. In mid-game Puerto Rico, players exploit their strategies, and attempt to find the balance of income generators and shipping capabilities that can turn into a victory point-generating machine. It is in this part of the game where choosing roles is typically most difficult and rewarding, as turn order can interact with players' differing hungers for money, goods and colonists to create a very unstable situation. Finally, players need to put the finishing touches on their little world - jockeying for large buildings and timing their final colonist placements to insure that the game ends in their favor.

Compare this with the admirable but inferior Industrial Waste. Industrial Waste does change as you play it. Labor becomes cheaper, you might pollute less, and there can be some difficult inter-player dynamics as you both produce and consume fewer raw materials. The dynamics of the game do not, however, change in a way that forces you to engage in different kinds of thinking at key turning points. You may tweak your decisions based on your situation and the available cards, but the game you start playing is pretty much the same one you finish. You come away feeling that you've made the best of a series of moves, rather than that you've shaped an entire course of events.

Designers construct a Story Arc in their games in many ways. Andreas Seyfarth gave Puerto Rico at least two. The most obvious is providing a variety of buildings with differing costs, which enter the game at different times during its story, and which set the goals of the players in new directions. Puerto Rico would likely have been a blander, inferior, game if all buildings had modest powers and all cost the same as each other. Additionally, the game mechanism itself offers some arc. In the beginning money is needed to establish certain production goals, while later money becomes secondary and players become more concerned with the timing of the Craftsman and Captain, the filling up of the ships, and other issues related to exploiting their production infrastructure for victory points. 

Durch die WüsteReiner Knizia uses multiple victory point conditions very effectively in Durch die Wüste to create different goals that emerge during the course of a game. Superficially, every turn is exactly the same. Place two camels. Yet at the beginning you're engaged in a guerilla war of stealing opportunities generated by the fact that each water hole only pays off for the first player to reach it. Later the game becomes more territorial as you stake out area and attempt to insure paths to the oases while pushing opponents away. This comes from the VP's you get from surrounding territories, which can only occur later in the game, and from the fact that multiple players can score the 5 point bounty from reaching any oasis. Finally comes the tenacious battle to establish the longest caravans before time runs out - a mini-game that Knizia built in by rewarding the owner of the largest caravan in each color. Notice how players begin really focusing on this goal just as the game would otherwise start getting boring as the best resources get taken or closed off. Knizia provides Story Arc to Durch die Wüste by providing differing sources of VP's, which become important at differing points along the board’s development

A successful Story Arc in a game is more than just Escalation. Escalation involves having the stakes increase as the game continues. It's a good feature, but not as rewarding as Story Arc, and easier to incorporate in a game design. Two games that incorporate Escalation are Union Pacific and Modern Art. As the board develops in Union Pacific, each railroad company becomes more valuable, and so the difference between leadership and second or third place become more dramatic. This helps insure that as the game wears on, the excitement stays palpable. It also helps insure that players who have fallen behind can catch up. Modern Art increases the values of paintings in later rounds, and it also increases the amount of money at stake for an artist to achieve at least third position. However, although the increasing stakes in these games cause them to accelerate, neither of them markedly shift gears.

To achieve that gear shift, a game often has a tipping point at which things change qualitatively. That tipping point will frequently involve the exhaustion of scarce resources - whether it is board space or some other game commodity. Acquire uses the 25-share limit to help achieve a tipping point that begins to push the game in new directions. In the beginning of Acquire money is tight, and players are mostly concerned with insuring a cash flow by holding a majority stake in at least one or two companies, however modest, and getting them to be the junior partner in a merge. By mid-game, money has become less scarce (for some!), and players begin to butt up against the absolute limit of available shares for each company, which will determine the ultimate majority shareholder. Now players need to carefully count shares and their relative positions as they decide which battles to wage and which ones to wait on. As the scarcity of shares becomes a greater factor, players experience a tipping point and find themselves sliding into a different type of game along Acquire's story arc.

Puerto Rico is mostly dependent on its buildings to provide its Arc, but the limitations in ship capacity does create a tipping point in the game. This is when it becomes increasingly possible for a player to be forced to dump significant amounts of goods, and must either control the Craftsman/Captain timing or else open the safety net provided by a warehouse or wharf.

Story arc is what gives a game scope rather than mere length. A game with scope puts the same resources into constantly changing contexts. I am always amazed at how much is achieved within the 30 minutes of a game of Durch die Wüste. Durch die Wüste is three games that bleed into each other like the colors of the rainbow - and with no more resources than five colors of camels, a hex grid, and two placements per turn. It took Lawrence of Arabia to achieve so much with so little, and it took David Lean four hours to tell his story.

Next time I'll look at the principle of "All or Nothing"—how game designers incorporate steep rewards and penalties in order to insure that the stakes remain high and the contest remains intense.

- Jonathan Degann

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