Talking About Games: Five Categories
Following up on my previous Patreon-funded essay, we’re talking about the five categories I use when thinking and writing about board games, and how they might help revolutionize games criticism forever. Hey, I’m nothing if not humble.
The seven elements of fiction. That’s where we left off last time. Character, theme, plot, setting, point of view, struggle, and tone. Seven concepts that are almost universally recognizable to anyone who’s completed a primary education, and which concisely break down nearly any story into its component building blocks. Even those who couldn’t list them off the top of their head would almost certainly recognize them if pressed. “What’s a plot?” they would sputter. “What do you mean, What is a plot? It’s what happens in a story. That or a conspiracy, or maybe a division of farmland. Now please step back, street person with an uncanny interest in the seven elements of style.”
At least that’s what happened when I conducted an informal poll downtown.
The problem, you might recall from part one, is that these seven elements don’t quite fit when applied to an interactive social experience like board games. Which is why today we’re going to talk about some that do. These are the five terms I apply to every game I evaluate, and which I would submit as a helpful alternative to anyone hoping to break away from our wretched default dichotomy of theme vs. mechanics.
In other words, this is great news for people who love vocabulary lessons!
But before we begin, let’s lay down some guidelines.
The goal with these terms is clarity, accessibility, and universality. Much like the elements of style, which are easily recognizable by pretty much anybody, our goal is to craft an evaluative language we can use semi-casually, both as critics and designers.
And this language ought to be as universal as possible. Although there will be outliers, the terms we choose should apply to most cases. Just as nearly all stories have a plot and characters, so too should nearly all games be constructed from the building blocks we outline here. This means leaving a number of excellent concepts on the cutting room floor, perhaps to be employed elsewhere rather than acting as all-encompassing elements.
Let me give you an example of such a term: replayability. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, even in our hobby’s current climate where many collections vastly outweigh their owners’ playtime. Replayability often confers some notion of value, that you’ll be playing this game forever and ever, compulsively, until you attain an ecstatic state of play wherein you forget your mundane day-to-day obligations, like children and spouses and family pets.
But replayability isn’t actually very useful once we start speaking in absolutes. What about mystery games, which are only solvable once? Or escape rooms, which by their very nature are escaped? Or message games, which jolt their players with a singular moment of epiphany? Or even certain wargames, which present a limited engagement that isn’t meant to be played more than a handful of times? There are plenty of worthwhile games that are only playable a small handful of times. Sometimes even only once.
Universal, then. And easily parsed. Terms we can understand at a glance when talking about board games.
The first task is to divide theme with all the relish of pulling apart a sticky bun. Which as everybody knows, means you will now have two sticky buns. In this case, the result is dual terms: setting and theme. With the latter, we’re talking about a very different sort of theme than the one generally thrown about in our hobby. After all, you wouldn’t say the theme of Casablanca is “Morocco during World War II.” But when it comes to board games, that’s pretty much where we’re at.
So what’s the difference?
If you want to be all highfalutin’ about it, you can think of this divide by way of the extrinsic vs. intrinsic — that setting is usually extrinsic while themes are usually intrinsic. If you’re everybody else, a setting is what the game presents to the outside world: artwork, board layout, user interface, action verbiage, flavor text, rulebook fluff — the “story” of the game. You’re growing a farm, building a castle, waging endless war against your neighbors, or managing a geisha house. Again. For some reason.
Theme, meanwhile, is more internal and often more subtle. It’s what the game has you the player do, feel, or evoke. In other words, the game’s underlying reason, statement, or suggestion of its setting. Your farm is struggling because of a saturated marketplace. You’re building an ornate castle because Austria’s royalty prefers idolizing swans rather than feeding the peasantry. War is inevitable, or perhaps fallacious. Geishas make you feel tingly downstairs.
Whatever the reason, that divide is nearly always present, even when a game isn’t making an explicit statement. Setting is there to provide a context, while theme exists to make that context matter. When we say a game “lacks theme,” we might mean the game in question is missing either element: a setting, because the game doesn’t use much artwork or terminology to sell you on its context, or an actual theme, because it features a setting that feels disconnected from the actual process of play.
If you want to hear more, I recommend brushing up on Michael Barnes’ editorial on how Reiner Knizia is actually quite good at tinkering with theme, despite not really bothering much with setting. You can read it over here.
Meanwhile, let’s look at one of my favorite examples.
The setting of Homeland is plainly visible: you’re a CIA analyst trying to clear a bulletin board of threats to America. Onto these threats you deploy soldiers (little green army men!) and spies (patriotic blue dudes!) to isolate their intensity and difficulty, invest cards to defuse them, and ultimately reveal whether those threats were prevented or triggered. Oh, and somebody might be a terrorist working in your ranks. Social deduction! Spy stuff! Intrigue! Too bad the board is cluttered, your goals are unclear, and the entire design does little to communicate the immediacy and danger of your situation.
But when you peel back the layers a bit, Homeland is downright devious. Players adopt one of three possible identities: loyal agent, opportunist, or terrorist. In this case, both the loyal agent and opportunist want to save America, but both the opportunist and terrorist benefit from successful attacks — in the former case, because it enables them to expand their power and ambitions, and in the latter because they’re, um, terrorists. This subtle overlap is the domain of theme, generating a subtle but cogent point that exists underneath the game’s usual trappings.
Unsurprisingly, discussing Homeland via the usual definition of “theme” is fruitless, because we’re collapsing different things into a single term. Only when we divide them can we talk about the game’s relative strengths. There’s the setting, which is flimsy thanks to the game’s shoddy graphic design, unclear intent, and the incongruous presence of its little army dudes and spy guys. The theme, on the other hand, is handled masterfully, evoking an intelligence apparatus that’s only as strong as its weakest links, mired in petty bureaucracy and crass ambition, and tooled to reward the wrong behavior. That’s a timely message lurking beneath the surface of a discount bin setting. Incidentally, Homeland goes for $12 on Amazon, and maybe my review will tell you why that’s a great deal.
We can talk more about the divide between setting and theme later. For now, let’s round out our five terms. Next up are components and mechanics, both of which should be familiar.
Starting with the second term, mechanics are a game’s systems, the deck-building and set collection and point-to-point movement and whatever else it uses to transmit the player’s intent into being. Think of these as social guidelines: you want to move a box to the end of this maze, here are the levers and conveyor belts that do the moving. Crucially, mechanics do not “exist,” much the same way numbers do not “exist.” They’re an agreed-upon set of behaviors that, when leveraged against other behaviors, produce a state that can be manipulated. Or played, if that sounds nicer.
The objects manipulated by these behaviors are your components. When it comes to board games, these are every bit as valuable as the rules themselves — and if you don’t believe me, take a look at the numbers whenever a Kickstarter promises stretch goal miniatures. There’s joy in slamming a heavy piece onto the table, and not only because it gives the impression that you’re the big kid on the block. The way we move a game’s components can provide an additional thematic context. Do you conceal a piece from your fellow players? Clink it annoyingly? Slide it ominously across the board? Place it face-down to suggest an important secret?
Further, components and mechanics are connected the way setting and theme are connected. Just as setting and theme are the right and left hands of a board game’s narrative, so too are components and mechanics the ways in which a game becomes interactive. Mechanics let you think in a game’s language, while components let you write those thoughts into physical existence. Components without mechanics are contextless objects, while mechanics without components are unformed thoughts.
Much as with setting and theme, there’s infinitely more to be said here. We’ll undoubtedly continue to explore these concepts in future months. For now, though, we need to introduce the fifth element. No, not Mila Jovovich. Instead, I’m talking about the way these four elements interact.
In a nutshell, Feedback is the way a game’s setting, theme, mechanics, and components loop into one another, especially once we introduce the human element. Does the game in question feature actions that promote its thematic statements? Does the setting encourage particular behaviors with its components? Are those components appropriate, or over- or under-produced given the aims of the game? Perhaps most importantly, are players guided to behave in particular ways suitable to what the game hopes to evoke?
As a critic, there are a few useful ways to talk about this. My favorite term is elegance. Rather than stating that a game is simple, elegance communicates that a game’s elements flow into one another without snagging on corners or meandering through any one element. Even complicated games can be elegant if their actions make sense in evoking the game’s setting and themes. Simon Agner Holm has proposed coherence as another useful consideration for discussing this interconnectedness.
Regardless of the specific adjectives, it’s useful to evaluate a game not only on how well it evokes the first four elements, but also in how well it pulls off their intersection. Let’s look at one last example for today.
Sol: Last Days of a Star (review) is a masterclass in feedback. At its most basic, each player controls a mothership orbiting the sun. But this is no regular sun: it’s a dying star, and your actions directly contribute to it decay.
This is reflected in every aspect of Sol. Your actions (via both setting and mechanics) construct structures in and around the sun, but this hastens your movement through a deck of cards that both provides special actions and resources (because the sun is a source of energy and innovation) and acts as a game timer (because you’re destabilizing the sun by drawing out that energy). Your ultimate goal is to propel your mothership away from the impending supernova, a process accomplished either by hurling sacrificial ships into the sun’s core or running simulations from stations in orbit. In both cases, the very thing that ensures your survival also ensures the premature death of your home star.
When players are introduced into this unstable system, our four categories undergo feedback. As the sun’s demise is hastened, the game encourages its players to further destabilize their own chances of survival by taking broader risks and less-effective actions. The result is a sweeping commentary on both our civilization’s current energy predicament and the scientific realities of matter and energy more broadly. Sol is about the inevitability of entropy in two senses. First chemically, in that we as organisms and users of technology only exist because we take organized energy and disorganize it, propelling ourselves and our engines by the process of that disordering. Phosphorus becomes life, food becomes waste, fuel becomes ejecta. And second socially, in that humans are likely to default to self-interest over all alternatives. Even then, the solution to energy-based problems may demand a tremendous, and even risky, injection of energy. You can’t mitigate climate change without running the factories that produce the technologies that will mitigate climate change. And, Sol argues, our baser natures make it likely that only one mothership will break free of that hastened explosion.
Again, this isn’t a statement divorced from the game’s mechanics or components. The way pieces are added and sometimes removed visualizes the buildup of dangerous and entropy-causing entities. The slow revolution of your mothership around the sun both reflects the need to gain greater momentum and the constraints working against your attempted solutions. The gradual peeling away of the deck offers both opportunity and disaster.
That tension between producing something useful, even salvific, and dooming the entire human race to an early death is at the heart of Sol. It’s also a prime example of how carefully integrating a game’s disparate categories and weathering them on the rocks of human interaction can produce something worthy of evaluation. Sol rewards that manner of investigation, especially when we apply a robust critical vocabulary rather than reducing it to the inadequate binary of “theme” and “mechanics.”
That’s enough for now. Next time, we’ll talk about how these elements can be applied to both complex and simple games, sometimes in revelatory ways.