Narration in Board Games

Well, I’ve stumbled across something I had forgotten about that discusses an element of board games that many thematic games try to nail down, but often don’t succeed without compromising the actual game. Narration. From a response I made in my Gloom of Kilforth review I made on boardgamegeek a long while back.

Something I didn’t get from your review was how you found it with regards to narrative. I’m not sure if that’s your thing or if you prefer a game that’s more mechanics & less theme.Ah, yeah, the narrative experience. Normally when I play a game I prefer to think in terms of gameplay, how to strategize and learn to win first and foremost, and find fun with that. Narrative comes second.

Chris Stanton

When it comes to narrative, I find 2 kinds in games, and sometimes a game has both.

1.) Subtle narrative, where it’s not the text on the cards or in the scenario book that tell the story so much as it is the gameplay and player interactions with other players or with the AI that tells the story. For instance, in Magic Realm, you start as 1 of 16 characters, let’s say a Sorcerer who can cast some spells, who starts at a location called the Inn where there are a group of Rogues who can be hired or Traded with, but he is more interested in going out into the world to learn more spells, so he goes out and finds a Dragon Hoard where there are many treasures, one of which contains a spell book which has elemental spells in them. As he attempts to learn some spells, he gets Cursed with Disgust, making him ugly and thus making his Fame value worthless (necessary points towards winning the game), and then a giant Dragon shows up to kill him, but he casts the Transform spell on it to turn it into a squirrel which he then decapitates with a knife. So then he decides he has to eventually make it to the Chapel where he can potentially spend the night to remove the Curse that’s been inflicted upon him, and…

Ok, that’s going on a little too long. The point is, that entire narrative can be made from playing that game, and the game has no cards with flavor text. There is a location actually called Inn, occupied by, well, I guess the equivalent to Strangers in this game called Rogues, attempting to learn knew spells makes it possible for you to get 1 of 6 Curses while attempting to do so; there is an enemy called Flying Dragon, and a spell called Transform which can transform an enemy into 1 of 6 things, including a squirrel. You can play the game without focusing on the narrative, just focusing on risk management for spell learning, strategizing with which spells to start with and whether you should cast them on yourself or on an enemy. Yet others can watch you play and see that story unfold before their very eyes without having to squint and see card details and whatnot. It’s very abstract, and thus very open to interpretation on how the story can be told.

2.) Narrative that is blunt, where it’s highly suggested you either read the flavor text on the cards, or the story in a scenario book, to let the players know what they’re doing, and why, assuming they don’t just want to stick with a “Go from point A to point B; Go here and kill this; Go there and steal that; etc.” The sort of thing you see in Tales of Arabian Nights, or Mice and Mystics, or Mansions of Madness, etc.

This game leans more towards #1, yet tries at times to be like #2, with the rulebook encouraging players to read the flavor text to immerse themselves into the narrative. I did read the flavor text in the Saga cards and a few Places/Quests/Events and whatnot. But when it comes to the Sagas, I feel a disconnect from what I’m reading and thus what I feel like I should be doing, vs. what I’m actually doing in the gameplay. For example, the Steal Artifact Saga (picture included in the review for Chapter 1), the flavor text indicates that you’re searching for the Sceptre of Power to turn the tide in the gloom of the world, and you must search the “forest and everglades” to find clues about its existence. Thus you need a Badlands card (which you can get by defeating any Place/Enemy/Quest/Stranger (PEQS) encounter at a Badlands location), and a Forest card, and usually a Quest card to indicate you’re going on a quest for the sceptre. That sounds fancy and all, but the flavor text was the last thing on my mind when I was actually playing the game and defeating the encounters to get those cards. I mean, when you go to the Badlands and find some monster like the Mind Reaver, a creature that eats brains, you kinda have to wonder how killing this thing is supposed to give you a clue on how to find the sceptre. I guess you could say the creature is a minion of the mini-boss you have to beat to get the sceptre, a minion of the “dreadful new enemy”, but how would your hero know that? What makes it more special than all the other things that could show up in the Badlands?

This is the problem with games that try to do both narrative option 1 and 2, the details become meaningless because they don’t make sense. It would be better to either make it more abstract, or more tightly controlled for a scenario structure. In the case of Magic Realm, it makes no attempt whatsoever to imply a specific scenario/quest/tale the hero must go on in order to fulfill some destiny, it leaves it entirely up to the player to get whatever they can out of the game. A show don’t tell style. In addition, the game would lose replay value if it was THAT scenario-driven, because there’s less incentive to play a game to hear the same story over and over again. Granted, you could play it again with the same story, and acquire different cards that have the same keywords to craft a bit of a different narrative, which in effect allows for a higher replay value than what most scenario-driven games are capable of; but that wouldn’t solve the inconsistency and narrative-gameplay disconnect problem. When it came down to it, all I was thinking about was getting cards of these types to level up and get closer to beating the game.

Personally, I think the Sagas would’ve been better if it remained more vague and just said something like, “Find the Sceptre of Power!”, and instead of having a static set of card types you would have to get, make them randomized. For instance, indicate that you need 2 cards with keywords that relate to location types (ie finding 2 cards from the Badlands/Forest/Mountain/Badlands), but emphasize that they have to be from 2 different location types (ex: can’t use 2 Badlands), and have the third option either be a static set, or make it either a Quest/Place/Stranger by random choice. This could probably be done by having different drawbags with chits in them, 1 bag for locations, 1 for PEQS (ie encounter types), 1 for ITSAs (ie stuff you can get either via rumor-trades and discoveries, or vie the marketplace). Thus this makes for a more freeform narrative structure where it’s implied that you have to journey to different parts of the land to find clues about this fabled item, and also visit a place that can offer more clues about it, or find a stranger who can tell you more, or defeat an enemy and get information out of it by whatever means, whether it’s able to talk or if something unique about it says something.

The reason I don’t believe Tristan did this is for the sake of balance, to have each Saga encourage players to visit different places so that there won’t be too many heroes pile-driving into the same locations and making it too much of a competitive race against each other, but I’m not so sure that’s a valid concern considering there are 6 locations of each type. But on the other hand, that could also mean the number of Places in Forests could run out too quickly. I suppose a limitation rule could handle that, such as forcing players not to have more than 2 rumors of the same type in their hand (ex: heroes are only allowed to have 2 Place rumors max in their hand). But on the other hand, that would add more components into the game.

The Sagas are the main weakness for the “narrative” portion of the game, but there is potential in cards as a stand-alone feature. For instance, the Thieve’s Guild quest card (found in the Forest). The flavor text on that card seems good enough for a stand-alone saga, or a stand-alone scenario for this game, going into the Forest to take down the Thieve’s Guild which has become too far spread out for its own good. And yet it’s all resolved with either a Study check (more likely a few Study check rolls), or an Influence check. By chucking a few dice and trying to get successes over 1 or more rounds. That just seems abstract to the point of frustration. And again, another reason why not to think of the narrative, just the gameplay. That being said, there were brief instances of greatness with narrative amidst the gameplay. Such as events from the Night deck causing a Place/Quest/Stranger/Enemy to be removed from play. The flavor text on the cards indicating how it is thematically speaking that that can happen. Or needing to sacrifice cards when encountering an enemy, or an Ancient One plot, or the Ancient One itself. That’s good stuff that works perfectly with the gameplay and the narrative.

Anyway, make no mistake, I wouldn’t wipe my ass with this game if it just consisted of cards with only the keywords and only the Fight/Study/Sneak/Influence values on them. The artwork and flavor text (at least on the non-saga cards) is great and does bring some amount of thematic immersion into this game. Games that have no thematic immersion are best suited for abstract strategies like Chess or Go or Arimaa or anything from the GIPF series, where it’s nothing but pure strategy/tactics with no luck whatsoever. If a game has some amount of luck to it, I’d like there to be some theme to go with it. This game has theme, but I just wish the gameplay utilized it better. Magic Realm is probably the definitive fantasy board game when it comes to thematic immersion precisely because it’s entirely made of narrative structure #1. And it was intentionally made to be narrative structure #1 because it was intended to compete against Dungeons & Dragons (the tabletop RPG). D&D has the advantage that all tabletop RPGs have, that the DM creates the scenarios/narrative, and the limits are their imaginations, and they can always make a limitless number of scenarios for that RPG because it was meant to be that way. Self-contained board games don’t have that advantage, the rules they follow limit the game in that way, but that also makes them more accessible without requiring players to read several RPG books. So to get as close to “limitless narrative” as possible, it went with no narrative. By saying nothing, it leaves it up to the players to fill in the blanks, like how a DM must come up with things for narrative, to give the player’s drive to doing something in the game.

In other words, the more narrative control the game gives the players, the more potential strength the narrative can have. At the same time, that also doesn’t allow the narrative to overtake the game (as is the case with most scenario-driven games), the gameplay still comes first, but the gameplay becomes the narrative. It’s forcing the narrative to conform to the gameplay rather than trying to have the gameplay conform to the narrative. The Sagas in this game attempt to do the latter.

I prefer games with theme, but the game still needs to be fun. The game should be fun without the narrative, but the narrative should enhance the fun. Abstract strategy games prove that a game by itself with no (explicit) narrative can be fun. An (explicit) narrative by itself doesn’t make a game, much less make it fun. And a game is only a game if the player is faced with difficult decisions, where making one may cause him/her to regret it later.

Ok, I’ve rambled on enough. There’s my (far too long) answer.

PS: If you want to see examples of narrative in this game vs. other fantasy board games, that’s pretty easy to do. Just check session reports in this game, and Magic Realm, and Return of the Heroes, and Gloomhaven, etc. The session reports tend to tell-all about the narratives that can be gained, assuming you’re reading one with “narrative” in mind.

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