Thursday, 26 April 2007

Impossible Themes

I recently discovered, to my delight, that my cable TV company supplies me with a variety of old TV programmes on demand for free. Amongst the inevitable barrage of crap they have on offer there's some great comedy and Band of Brothers and I chose to start using my new service with some episodes of the latter.

If you've never seen Band of Brothers it's a ten-part series made by the same team who put Saving Private Ryan together about a company of US paratroopers in Word War 2. Unlike Saving Private Ryan the series is based on the genuine memoirs of the troopers - in fact each episode is prefaced with short talking-head interviews with the men themselves. It's absolutely brilliant - so brilliant in fact that I managed to get my partner to watch all ten episodes when it was first on even though she espouses complete loathing of all things combat-themed.

One of the brilliant things about it is it's realistic recreation of combat. The scenes are breathless, dangerous, confusing and yet somehow exhilarating, just as I imagine the real thing must be. I stress the word imagine here because of course I have no clear idea of what it would be like and nor, or course, would I want to. But I'm satisfied that at one level watching the programmes gets me as close to the experience as I'd want to be.

Another way in which I can get a different, equally distant angle on the experience combat is through playing video games. Shortly after watching Band of Brothers I picked up the game Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30. I'd avoided WW2 first-person shooters before because it seemed to be rather pointless and even somewhat disrespectful to release games of that theme that were so unrealistic in the sense that they let you play a hero-type, ploughing through swathes of Germans unassisted. Brothers in Arms is different - combat is deadly if you don't make use of cover, strategy or the AI-controlled allies that it provides. I think it's a fantastic game, and probably one of the most-played computer games I've ever bought.

Both the TV series and the video game are highly thematic in the sense that when enjoying them I feel completely immersed in the world that they're trying to create for me. I think that both have helped me learn about, and gain new perspectives on, the history of World War 2. In different ways they let me get as close as I'd want to to the lives of the soldiers who fought in the Western Front in that war. I also have a book by John Keegan called The Face of Battle which attempts to do a similar thing by looking at the experiences of soldiers in the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. While not so immersive as computer or TV again, in it's own way, it might be seen as a very thematic experience.

My dealings with WW2 board games on the other hand are decidedly un-thematic, at least in the sense of making me feel like I'm getting closer to the experience of being in combat or even commanding soldiers into combat. There's none of the feeling of fast-paced, dicing-with-death action even at squad level games. Rather the rules and the consideration of decisions and the poring over charts actually completely obscure any feeling of urgency you might derive from the game. You might argue that moving up to the strategic and operational levels might make the game more like the experience of commanding troops but I think not - battlefield command is hugely stressful in a completely different way. I read recently that both supreme commanders in the Battle of Stalingrad suffered with nervous afflictions. Even so, the computer still does a better job of being thematic - I've played a lot of the excellent freeware offering Steel Panthers: WW2 in which the complex mechanics governing movement and combat are all hidden under the hood. This allows a much more realistic simulation thanks both to the way the computer can handle levels of complexity that would swamp a real game and because it stops a commander trying to play the system rather than concentrating on tactics.

This isn't supposed to be a rant against wargames. I understand that in most wargames the focus is on creating a realistic simulation for the purposes of historical "what-if" scenarios rather than of creating an immersive theme. Rather I'm questioning whether theme is really something that boardgames are terribly good at providing - in most cases a boardgame is about learning to play the rules for best advantage, as opposed to live-action and strategy computer games which have the potential to be much more open ended. In a boardgame the rules have to be open, transparent and to some extent simple and short enough to be digestible, all of which leads to an inevitable degree of structure in the approach to play.

So this leaves us with the obvious question of why "theme" is considered such an important quality of AT games. Personally I've always had a slight problem with this definition - I play AT games partly because of the themes they choose rather than because the theme is strong. Rather I have a lot more sympathy with the view expressed by Jezztek in his eloquent definition of ameritrash over at boardgamegeek which emphasises the importance of drama and narrative over theme.

Nevertheless, there are a small handful of boardgames widely regarded as being extremely thematic to play. I want to devote the remainder of this article to looking at those games and perhaps trying to distil out the elements that make them transcend the ordinary strictures of mechanical boardgaming.

Almost inevitably my first pick is one of the pinnacles of AT design, the much-lamented Avalon Hill classic Dune. The theme in this injects itself on a number of levels. Firstly the variable player powers assigned to each house seem to be an excellent reflection of the supposed skills and traits of the various factions seen in the Dune novels. Secondly, and perhaps key in bringing the theme to the game, is the unforgiving and vicious nature of the treachery aspects of game - the intrigue created around the treachery cards and the inevitable stab in the back from your turncoat leader(s) do a fine job of recreating the smoke-and-mirrors paranoia of intergalactic diplomacy. Finally the physical layout of the board, with the rules for worms and storms and such, mimic the environmental factors that soldiers operating of the face of the planet would have to contend with.

My second choice is also one that many of you will probably have guessed in advance, and would get my vote for the most thematic game of all time - Fury of Dracula. Both versions of the game - FFG and GW - are highly thematic, but for me the GW version edges it, and that's what I'm going to focus on in this discussion. There are two things that make this game work for me. First and foremost is the balance between the asymmetrical vampire hunters and the Count himself. The ingenious idea of pitting three hunters versus Dracula creates a situation where the game can be set up to make the vampire player extremely powerful in comparison to the hunters without affecting balance, since the power differential can be corrected through the hunters ganging up. The power balance is further tilted by the hunters being in receipt of very little information about the state of the game in comparison with the virtually omniscient vampire. This creates a situation in which the Dracula player really ends up feeling like an immortal monster weaving Byzantine plots across Europe while the hunters play most of the game in a state of genuine fear and doubt - all while retaining a reasonably balanced game. The second element are the excellent components of the game which really evoke the late-Victorian setting of the fateful chase depicted in the novel.

Hopefully by now getting away from the obvious candidates my third pick is Space Hulk. I think that WW2 games attempting to be thematic could learn a lot from this, which manages to be a squad tactics game that derives a genuine sense of urgency from the simple expedient of placing a timer on the marine players' move. Doing this injects an exciting element of panic into what is otherwise quite a thoughtful and tactical game. The use of differing hidden information on both sides is also an important component in creating a claustrophobic atmosphere - the marine player can never know the precise number of the foe he's dealing with and the genestealer player has to contend with the hidden action points of the marines. And again the fantastic GW components also help.

My final pick, is Bootleggers from Eagle Games. While this looks like (and is) a somewhat garish mishmash of Euro mechanics shoehorned into an Ameritrash game the tie between mechanics and theme is actually very strong. In particular the area majority mechanic used to govern control of speakeasies seems incredibly reminiscent of the way mob bosses would have to use muscle in order to maintain presence in the marketplace. The rules around stills and whiskey production, while random, actually use the randomness to evoke the trial-and-error process of illegal spirit production and the greater chance of attracting law enforcement to stills that produce larger amounts. The crowning glory of the theme in this game though is the brutal free-for-all nature of trading and debate which rewards loud threats as much, if not more, than careful wheeler-dealing and at the same time has a built-in real-life policing mechanism to stop it getting out of hand: renege on too many deals and no-one will trust you any more. Playing this I always feel like I should be breaking out the trilby hats and the fat cigars.

So what can we derive from all this? Well, obviously the games above all differ in the way that they go about creating a thematic experience but nevertheless, I think we can use them to draw up a five-point list (in no particular order) for building thematic boardgames:

1) Hidden information is a great way of representing a number of different themes.

2) Don't be afraid of setting up asymmetrical games with flavour rules for different sides that help to set the scene.

3) Try and include some open mechanics (i.e. negotiation) which mirror real-life situations and come with similar advantages and disadvantages.

4) Implement your choice of the above rules without too much regard for game balance - it's important, but the theme comes first.

5) Provide good quality components that are designed to evoke the setting of the game.

Right, armed with this I'm off to design FFG's next bestseller. See you next year.


Shellhead said...

I agree with your concluding points, but I didn't like Bootleggers. I played it with five EuroGamers, and it was dry and dull. I think that you were swayed by all the plastic pieces, or else you were fortunate enough to play with people with personalities. Another strike against Bootleggers was that one of the EuroGuys had apparently read online about how to solve the game, as he is kind of a dumbass but is capable of memorizing and executing somebody else's winning strategy.

Of your concluding points, I want to draw attention to #3. A long time ago, when I was first dabbling with game design as a teenager, I read this long, detailed article in Dragon magazine about how the game designers created TSR's old Gangbusters game.

The point that really jumped out at me was that whenever they were trying to figure out game balance issues, they did some research and found their answers in history. There are always trade-offs between choices. Sometimes you can succeed wildly or fail disastrously by going to an extreme, but in the long run, there seems to be a basic equilibrium that pulls things back into balance. Maybe it's because the competition starts mimicking your success, or the environment is strained beyond capacity, or there a shortage in a key element develops. Figure out what that balancing element is, or else make one up, and put that in your game.

Even if you're not worried about balance (in a game with very direct interaction between players, the players themselves will determine that balance), that same research or imagination can help you discover other important elements, like meaningful victory conditions, terminology that conveys flavor, inspiration for component appearance, or even just some neat chrome for the rules.

Pat H said...

After watching a series such as Band of Brothers, thumbing through a book like Beevor's Stalingrad, and playing a mission or two of Company of Heroes my imagination is all but stoked with theme. For myself I can feel immersed in a game of solo Squad Leader or Ambush! without much help. The problem was always setup time and playing partners.

Miniature games complete with terrain always scratched that itch for me the most using 1:72 scale soldiers and model tanks you can really feel attached to your troops and their objectives. Once again though the setup time was prohibitive.

I can certainly understand why PC wargaming in particular really captured the grognards interests because hell if the computer can do all of the CRT calculating for me then that just saves valuable life time. This is where a game like Tide of Iron will capture a market which has been splintered, fractured and ignored. Right out of the box you can simulate either some of your favorite scenes, chapters, pc missions or history channel shows within minutes. All of the bits from miniature gaming will make a showing. The rules are scaled down grog-heavy in order to speed things up without stripping away the theme or overall tactics. It remains to be seen if the theme immersion you speak of will be enough to catch the more casual gamer or non-wargamer but I feel that wargamers are ready to embrace TOI due to the fact that at the very least we will be able to break it open and have more games against non-traditional hex and counter gamers.

I am patiently awaiting a new round of converts that I really think this game has a chance of winning over.

I still think it wont take long for me to do away with the maps and just use a ruler. Then the world tank museum mini's will replace the ones from the box - then of course the rule adjustments.....

Nice article, immersion of course is from the eye of the beholder and if you had a partner and a TOI box after viewing Band of Brothers perhaps you may have a different experience. Oh and naming officers always helps.

KenHR said...

This is a great article.

Just a comment on the bits about wargames. There are a few out there that re-create a lot of the stress and unknowns of tactical combat.

Avalon Hill's Up Front makes use of cards for hidden information purposes, as well as to randomize terrain and events. Each nationality in the game has its own characteristics, and many of the scenarios feature asymmetrical forces. Every game plays completely differently, and the action mirrors much of what I've read and heard of first-hand accounts of battle (extreme confusion, moments of intense activity broken up by stretches where little happens, indivudual heroics, etc.).

An even older game, SPI's City-Fight, is a tactical game of modern urban combat. Using a double-blind system that stresses observation and reconnaisance, the tension levels it generates are enormous. There is a ton of chrome to reflect the peculiarities of combat in built-up areas, such as non-reciprocal LOS. I've played games of this where neither side fired a shot, but my opponent and I were chewing our nails off at every impulse as we sent teams forward to clear out buildings room by room. The pace is kept quick by the alternating impulse system and a brilliant search and fire mechanism.

You can get a bit of the tension of combat in a boardgame. It just might have to be accomplished by non-traditional means. Up Front and City-Fight are both strange beasts in the wargame genre.

Pat H said...

Tension in a boardgame is definatley subjective. Ambush! could be downright frightening at times as your squad took on a personality. It was one of the only games I played that encouraged rescuing wounded soldiers while being fired on.

robartin said...

Ambush is one of the most boring, frustrating games I have ever played in my entire life. Adjusting slide rules, rolling dice and looking stuff up on a million different tables, consulting the rulebook constantly. Man, that game sucked. Give me Medal of Honor any day...

Michael Barnes said...

Matt's article really points out the critical role "intangibles" play in teasing out atmopshere and more immersive themes. It's not just art on cards or even theme/mechanic integration- it's also how these "x" elements really bring theme, tension, and sense of time/place to life, like the hidden information in SPACE HULK or the intricate way the player powers in DUNE work together.

Ken mentioned UP FRONT...I believe that UP FRONT is one of the few designs that is in the same class as DUNE in terms of pure ingenuity and incorporating these intangibles. A lot of new/more recent UP FRONT players bitch about how they'll spend several turns discarding and doing nothing- yet what this effectively does is recreate the reality of tactical, man-to-man combat. You have to wait for an opportunity and strategically you've got to decide when to push forward, take a shot, or risk everything for a final drive. But there may be 5-6 turns between any real action as your men are pinned down by the threat of enemy fire or unable to move forward due to circumstances. Sometimes it even seems like a complete stagnate stalemate but then suddenly you've got the right cards, your men break cover, and suddenly there's an explosion of action. The result is a really rich atmosphere that generates real tension, uncertainty, and fear- coupled with opportunities for heroics, surprise, and real drama. I think UP FRONT captures this better than any other wargame I've ever seen- sure, COMBAT COMMANDER has the narrative but UP FRONT's abstraction of terrain and spatial relations actually serves a higher purpose, putting those "tangibles" in the player's imagination and focusing instead on the psychological/tactical elements of man-to-man fighting.

Pat H said...

It's too bad your experience with Ambush was not good Robert. It really isn't that complicated and does solo like no other hex and counter game did at the time. But I have to adimit I haven't played it at all over the last 8 years and certainly put many more hours into Close Combat 2 through 5. Once again though it boils down to including things such as pinning, panic, wounding and the psycological impact of close quarter combat that makes a game gripping. Trying to straddle the line between realism and playability is the holy grail of wargaming.

PC WW2 shooters are not good in my opinion. I have played all of them but I find that shooters in particular restrict the action to the limited perspective available. It's comlete bullshit to have someone or something get a jump on you that was standing maybe 5 feet to your left but because your vision is limted you couldn't see him. To me it feels more like watching a movie with some choices than presenting any tactical decisions, or the benefit of good acting. It's fun if your hungover or tired.

robartin said...

Pat - If only Sega had ever released their VR helmet for the Genesis - things would be so different! We would probably have already colonized Mars.

not billy sparkles said...

I'll shamefully admit that my experience with wargaming is next to nil.

However, I did play one hell of a lot of Space Hulk, and have to say that for such a relitively simple game mechanic(well--involving the base set that is) it sure as fuck got the blood pumping on not-to-few an occasion.

It always seemed to boil down to that one decision that would make or brake it for the Space Marines-- and even then ,sometimes, they could pull something out a hat.

Shit... just talking about it makes me want to get a game in.

Julian said...

Great article. An additional bonus with asymmetric games is that they really expand the life of the game. For instance, in War of the Ring it is so different playing the Free Peoples and the Shadow that you basically get two games for the price of one. It's a similar deal with Fortress America, and even where the asymmetry is only variable player powers you can spend a lot of time exploring the different sides.

Michael Barnes said...

If only Sega had ever released their VR helmet for the Genesis - things would be so different! We would probably have already colonized Mars.

Doubt that...but we probably would have had a really sweet "Virtua" ALTERED BEAST.

[muffled]RISE FROM THE GRAVE[/muffled]

Pat H said...

Yeah, Sega was like a politician - too many promises.

Ken Bradford said...


The proper pronunciation of the beginning quote:


Anonymous said...

Great post, and not just because as a narcissist I approve of any post that mentions me.

Michael Barnes said...

The proper pronunciation of the beginning quote:


It's more like


Pat H said...

I thought it was "rise from da rave".

Michael Barnes said...

I think that must have been some kind of 1998 remix version.

Mr Skeletor said...

Ok, I'll start off with my big announcement. I finally got to play Dune last night.... it was ok.

Band of Brothers was a great show, they are filming the sequel down here in Melbourne (which is about the Pacific.) Now that I have hours upon hours of spare time from withdrawing from BGG, I may spend some of it stalking Tom Hanks.

This question on "immersion" (which seems to me what the article is about more than theme) made me wonder - has anyone ever attempted to make a WW2 roleplaying game?

Pat H said...

I don't know of any specific ones but Gurps by Steve Jackson could handle it and did mention the period. Not sure if any modules were created but definitely feasible.

Rliyen said...

This question on "immersion" (which seems to me what the article is about more than theme) made me wonder - has anyone ever attempted to make a WW2 roleplaying game?

I think the closest I've seen to a WW2 RPG was Phoenix Command by the long defunct Leading Edge Games. The had supplements for the WW2 weapons, along with some of the fighting vehicles (The Koenig Tiger, for instance). But, I think that they just gave you the details on the weapons and vehicles, not so much on the war.

Of course, in the RPG circles PC was derided as a terrible system. Which begs the question, why?

For starters, the rules take a bit getting used to. But, once you get the hang of it, they actually make sense.

I think the main reason why it got crapped on was because of combat. "It's sloooow!" Actually, it isn't that bad and again, once you get the hang of the combat and the regularly used modifiers, it's a snap to pick up.

I think that the main reason why it wasn't popular was because it suffered from D&D syndrome, where once you got enough levels underneath you, you could steamroller over anything. "Horde of Orcs? I can take 'em!"

This system, regardless whether your character was a greenhorn or a seasoned veteran, combat could spell death for you. It is quite possible to die during combat, no healing potions to bring you back, no resurrection, nada, nothing. I like the system because the mantra is "Combat is not to be entered lightly."

Whew, sorry for the babble. Now, back to your regularly scheduled programming!

However, Phoenix

Mr Skeletor said...

Wait, this WW2 game had levels?

Shit, what level was Hitler?

Michael Barnes said...

There actually was a pretty cool-looking RPG by a small publisher called GEAR KRIEG that was WW2 themed but it had "advanced"/"experimental" there were like Nazi mechs (!!!) and so forth.

Rliyen said...

Wait, this WW2 game had levels?

Shit, what level was Hitler?

BAH! Damn me and my tired typing skills!

What I meant to say was that players disliked Phoenix because you couldn't level up. Your skills improved, but not your capacity to soak damage (i.e. D&D). That's what I wanted to convey. I think it was a rude awakening for people who were used to a playing style (i.e. let's not be diplomatic, let's just kill them and take their stuff!) from D&D. That model did not work in PC (or their other works: Living Steel and the Aliens RPG).

People say the Aliens RPG sucks, but actually I like it. I want to feel like Hudson in the medlab, blasting away, yelling, "GET SOME!" knowing full well the reason for my passion is the fact that I do not want to die.

On another note, I completely forgot about Gear Krieg. I think the reason why it didn't register was the fact that it was an "alternate history" WW2. Besides that, like Barnes, I heard a lot of good things about the game. There just wasn't enough support around our area to support it.

TheRankO said...

Steve Jackson Games put out a GURPS World War II sourcebook back around '02, then followed it up with another dozen or so WWII books.

Michael Barnes said...


TheRankO said...

Missed those. However, they did release SPANC (SS Panzer Aryan Nazi Catgirls) at one point.

(Like that game needs more fetishes...)

hughthehand said...

Band of Brothers was a great show, they are filming the sequel down here in Melbourne (which is about the Pacific.)

HOLY HELL! Is this true? Gonna have to google the hell out of that now.

Anyone else think that David Schwimmer played an awesome role?

Some interesting facts on the men of Band of Brothers:

Capt. Ronald Speirs never confirmed or denied the account of him possible killing those Germans after giving them the smokes.

Capt. Herbert Sobel tried committing suicide in the 70's, and lived in a vet hospital till 87, where he died.

Lewis Nixon (guy that liked whisky) gave Dick Winters a job at the Nixon Nitration Works, and later became Personnel Director there. Nixon also eventually got over his addiction.

Pat H said...

Schwimmer plays a bozo well.

Mr Skeletor said...

HOLY HELL! Is this true? Gonna have to google the hell out of that now.

Sure is. Been all over the papers down here as it's a big coop for our new film studios, which have been an expansive white elephant so far.
I have read it's going to be 10 parts again, with a budget of $150 mil, though I'm not sure if that is Aussie or American $$$.

Shellhead said...

There were also some weird WWII rules and supplements for that open source D&D 3.0 system a few years back. They looked good, but I just don't think that the D&D level/hit point system is appropriate for a modern warfare setting.

Pat H said...

You mean that I can't have a Browning +4 to hit and +5 damage bullets that I found in a deserted bunker?

Or 585 hit points which can effectively absorb 20 schmeiser magazines due to my AC/-8 special edition army issued khaki's?

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