Talking About Games: Narrative & Exposition

Wee Aquinas just realized that he has to write a very large number of alt-texts.

One of my favorite questions to ask fellow historians is “When did the Roman Empire fall?” Not because I have a firm answer — it’s a harder question than you might think — but because our answers say a lot about how we conceptualize historical narratives. It’s easiest to respond with a year. Say, 410 or 476. If we remember Constantinople, maybe 1453. A conclusive final chapter. The end of an era. The opposing answer is that Rome didn’t fall so much as transition; that the Merovingian and Carolingian kings who fancied themselves emperors had no less of a claim than the string of weaklings who had ruled the Empire for centuries. This narrative is more meandering, but still, in its own way, unsatisfying.

And then there’s the answer that one aging professor offered in a course many years ago: “Why are you asking when something imaginary ended?”

I spent a good two years trying to figure out what that meant.

The real enemy is his active imagination and tendency to visualize his thoughts.

This guy is afraid of something imaginary. I hope.

I. What Is Narrative?

Here’s another question that’s harder to answer than you might assume: so what is a narrative, anyway?

To begin, we need to frame the parameters of the conversation. Speaking vernacular, we might say that a narrative is a story. Speaking about board games, we might therefore say that a “narrative game” is a game that tells a story. Further, the type of game that styles itself a “narrative game” is expected to contain certain things. Characters, probably with descriptions. Prose, both somewhere in the rulebook and likely as flavor text on the cards. A central struggle, which we, the inhabitants of the characters, will endeavor to resolve. Heroes determined to defend a kingdom from marauding undead. Doctors curing a pandemic. The plucky waitress who intends to shotgun Cthulhu right in the kisser.

Again, that’s the usual answer. This series isn’t about the usual answer. We’re trying to think about games critically. And when speaking the language of critique, we arrive at a very different answer.

I’ll clarify in the most oblique manner possible by asking another question: when does the board game happen?

Yeah, that’s a crazy sentence. I don’t mean “after the kids are in bed.” I mean when does this thing, this thing we are calling a board game, when does it become a board game in the way we mean “board game” when that we talk about board games? When is it most wholly itself? Is it a board game when it’s sitting on a shelf? Well, yes, of course it is. If somebody were to ask about the rectangular boxes on your shelves, you would say, “These are my board games.”

But we don’t speak critically about games on shelves. We speak critically about games as objects of play. Because when we think “board game,” we don’t think about a box that contains a rulebook and some components. We think about the processes of play. We think about the actions we take. The overall structure of the game’s phases and turns. The feel of slapping a chip against cardboard or sliding a not-so-miniature into range of a vulnerable opponent. We remember when a game made us feel good, or when it made us feel bad, or when we became so bored that we dozed off during Geoff’s turn.

So is a board game more of a board game when we’re playing it? It must be. And that wholeness of feeling has everything to do with something intangible, because the rules are not physical objects contained within the game, but guidelines and actions we undertake at the prompting of the game’s designers.

The same is true of narrative.

A narrative is a story, a deliberate string of events that somebody spoke about or wrote down or filmed. But it’s also something we can’t help but create all the time, because our brains are pattern-generating engines that filter our every experience along a conveyor belt of linear time, presented like multi-course feasts for the gluttonous protagonist we call the self. Every human suffers to varying degrees from apophenia, in which we see faces in trees or objects in clouds or signals in static. Which is why we can’t help but sort things into narratives, whether we’re talking about the fall of Rome or throwing a busted childhood toy into the garbage. These things are not “real.” They’re as imaginary as the idea that the Roman Empire had more in common with its Republican past than with its Merovingian successors. But just because they’re not real doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful or don’t approach truth. Almost the inverse, in fact. Things become meaningful because we assign them meaning.

But that’s where many board games slip up. Because characters and flavor text and central struggles aren’t narrative. They’re exposition.

"What is The Witcher about? Ah, I know: running errands." —a doomed concept meeting

Geralt and pals try to recapture the magic of The Witcher.

II. Long on Exposition, Short on Narrative

We need to cover two quick points before we can continue.

First, defining exposition. There are plenty of definition to choose from, even among those who discuss narratives and storytelling for a living. For example, if we drew a plot graph (which we’ve done before in this series!), exposition would be the first stage of the story, followed by rising action, climax, and denouement. In a broader sense, one might say that exposition is almost like a synopsis in that it’s descriptive. For the purposes of this essay, let’s take “exposition” to mean anything that enables narrative. This is pretty much what those other definitions are saying once you get past some quibbling. Exposition is a building block; narrative is the structure.

Second, this shouldn’t be taken as demeaning to exposition. Anyone who’s tried to write a story can tell you that exposition is difficult. Information needs to be conveyed to the reader without being too boring, too preachy, too obvious, or too engaging, too trite, or too subtle. It’s a tightrope, but instead of a net down below, you’re walking over a pit filled with interrupted suspension of disbelief and mockery from your audience. There’s a reason HBO’s Game of Thrones was lampooned for putting naked ladies in its expository scenes, and it’s the same reason John Scalzi had a few paragraphs in The Collapsing Empire that pretty much just turned to the audience and said, “Look, I’m just going to break the fourth wall and explain this book’s concept of space travel.” Good exposition is hard to pull off.

But when it comes to board games, we mistake the building blocks for the building itself.

"This is Shanghai. It is very Shanghai-ish. There are, um, paper lanterns. And rooftops that are not like the rooftops in Europe."

Time for some exposition!

Let me give an example that comes up pretty much every time I play a narrative game from Fantasy Flight. It could be Star Wars, Terrinoth, or the Lovecraft Mythos. My [character] is walking along, trying to reach [destination] so I can solve [struggle], when — oh no! An event card! I flip over the card to reveal that [terrifying monster] has appeared.

What do I do? I slam the bastard. Doesn’t matter if it’s a stormtrooper, a demon, or a shoggoth. Sure, I’ll take a few hits. I might need to rest or spend some resources or temporarily divert my course. But it’s only in exceptional cases that this Terrifying Monster has presented more than a delay. In this moment, I’m thinking about that monster. What’s so terrifying about a monster whose role is to pass time rather than posing a threat? After a while, I’m numb. The next time a [terrifying monster] appears, my default engagement state is weariness, not excitement.

This problem is only compounded when the game’s monsters aren’t connected to the game’s central struggle — in effect, when one tidbit of exposition conflicts with a different piece of exposition. Not every encounter needs to directly relate to the task at hand; plenty of successful narratives impede their characters with delays that don’t have anything to do with their overarching goal. But when I’m trying to stop a necromantic invasion and instead keep dealing with bandits and spiders, the thread grows slippery.

This is a common symptom of mistaking exposition for narrative. Our would-be narrator figures that if there’s enough story-stuff piled together, surely a coherent narrative will follow. To some degree, he isn’t wrong. I once sat through an excruciating session of Zombicide: Black Plague with a friend who found it necessary to narrate the entire experience like he was reading it out of a novel. Every swing, every hit, every miss. Every character movement. Every possible scrap of motivation. From the merest breadcrumbs, a narrative was born! Like I said, our brains our engineered to do that.

Unfortunately, only my one friend was getting anything out of it. Everybody else was making bad decisions in the hopes that we would succumb to the zombie plague and could move onto a different, less “narrative-driven” title.

Narratives are inevitable. But the goal of narrative-building shouldn’t be to create narratives that will only work for the most resilient recipients. There are more elegant tools than flavor text and snippets of prose.

Let’s examine three recent examples of how board games — and narrative games in particular — can tell more effective stories.

All memes are memes, but not all memes are memes. Clear?

This is a meme. But not the type of meme we’re talking about. Except it is. Sort of.

III. Narrative via Meme

We need to talk about memes. And I don’t mean “meme” in the sense of somebody posting a captioned image on social media. That is a meme. But it isn’t the only type of meme.

A meme can be thought of as cultural DNA. In fact, that connection is largely the point. The word is derived from memetics, from the Greek mimetes for “imitator,” the study of how information passes through cultures in much the same way that genetic information propagates across a species through biological evolution. In both cases, the biological and the cultural, we’re links in a chain built to transmit information. That’s why internet memes count as memes without making a memeticist roll their eyes so hard that they fall out the back of their head. You put up a picture of some dude looking at an attractive girl while his girlfriend stares aghast at the back of his head, and we instantly understand the message you’re trying to get across. You have transmitted an idea-gene, instantly recognizable because your culture has already internalized that image through many replications.

Because we’re always sorting things into narratives, memes become handy tools of exposition. This works on two levels. At their most basic, memetic cues can impart information without taking the time to spell out their implications. Consider the following mental images: first, a knight in shining armor defending a bridge against a horde of goblins; second, a knight in shining armor bearing down on a village of peasants.

What do these images look like? Are the knights on foot or mounted? Helmets on or off? Is the knight a man? What color are their armors? What animals adorn their heraldries? Are their weapons raised? What are those weapons? The details will invariably be different, but in memetic studies where subjects are asked to sketch or describe contrasting scenes like these, the similarities for each batch are often striking. Shared cultural expectations prompt respondents to describe the first knight as heroic, alone, weary, and determined, while the second is usually accompanied by fellow knights, who are all menacing, dark, and poised to strike. We understand from description alone that one is a savior while the other is an oppressor.

This goes beyond artwork, although of course this is one place board games stand out. As a visual medium, board games often use illustrations to communicate information. But this can also extend to other elements, such as the actions available to the player, the layout of the board, or even the words attached to characters or their intended behaviors.

"Lick me. Lick the sweat right off my cheek. Right by my eye socket."

This has become a meme.

This may seem painfully obvious, but it’s useful to spell out for the sake of explaining the second level. Because a meme isn’t only used as a common signifier. It can also be used to unsettle our expectations.

My favorite example is Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, mostly because it’s so iconic that it’s become a meme in its own right. Raiders is a playful movie, both narratively and cinematographically, and it’s apparent from the first scene. Consider how Indiana Jones is introduced. First he’s a silhouette against the horizon, dusty and drab, soon joined by others who don’t seem like great company. He marches through the jungle, still in silhouette. You see his feet, his back, his hand. His companions are afraid, he is calm. The music is suspenseful. When he’s finally revealed, he’s stepping from the shadows after inflicting violence, in similar fashion to a black-coat gunfighter in an old Western.

Point is, this person is entrancing because he doesn’t fit our expectations of heroism. You get the sense that he’s a little bit bad. The professor and charmer and goofball comes later. First we see him in his natural skin, and it has a rind of grime — hence, the unique thrills he offers as a hero. This is the sort of thing you can do with memetic cues, but only if you understand the value of them as cultural touchstones. You need to first understand which images convey which ideas before you can play with them.

Also from tiles.

This game is built from memes.

There are a lot of reasons I like the Vast series. It isn’t trying to be a “narrative game,” but it’s a masterclass in how to use memes as exposition.

The Crystal Caverns is better at this on the whole, mostly because it sticks to firmer genre tropes, but The Mysterious Manor is no slouch, either. For today, we’re sticking to the first one. The Crystal Caverns offers five characters, each with their own goal. Those goals are important because they need to be recognizable in order for the players to understand their role within the complicated ecosystem Vast immerses them in. The main character is a Knight, and she does pretty much what heroes do in RPG-style games: she explores a dungeon, kills things, rations her equipment, and tries to kill the big bad. She’s opposed by Goblins, who want to kill her, a Cave that wants to kill everything, and a Dragon — the weakest role, memetically speaking, since it doesn’t behave much like a dragon at all. Oh, and there’s a Thief, who wants to steal stuff and run away. So far, so tropey.

For the most part, the game leans hard on its memetic cues. The Knight must be kept alive, because she’s playing a roguelike game in which death marks a permanent failure state from which there is no return apart from restarting the game all over again. The Goblins and Thief, on the other hand, can die often, because they aren’t playing the same type of game. We all know goblins are expendable because they’re numberless. As for the Thief, he inhabits a stealth game. You know, the sort of game you reload when you’re caught and killed. Just as it makes sense for the Knight’s death to be permanent, it makes sense for the Goblins and Thief to keep popping back.

Where The Crystal Caverns questions its memetic assumptions is rooted in a sort of metagaming, albeit a metagame contained within a regular play. Rather than focusing only on your objective, it behooves you to understand everybody else’s goal as well. You aren’t only inhabiting your character; you’re an omniscient partial narrator. Thus, when the Thief is close to accomplishing his objective, the Knight might divert her course to stab him in the face. This isn’t something she would do under normal, in-meme circumstances. It’s only something she does because you, as narrator, have more control over the story than the Knight herself could actually wield.

Which means the game is firing on both levels of narrative-via-meme. On the first level, nearly everybody comes to the table with an understanding of what they’re here to do. Although they need to learn the rules, the burden of their objectives, rivalries, and even backstories are filled in without so much as a single Terrinoth event card’s flavor text. On the second level, their relationship to the other inhabitants of their game-space blossom into a functioning ecosystem. This is aided by certain pressures, such as the gradual collapse the cave, the pushback generated by one’s rivals, and the explicit stated objective that only one person can win. And all of this has been accomplished by assigning familiar roles and then putting them into both anticipated and unanticipated friction with one another — basically, by assuming that players will understand their roles and both fulfill and transcend them at the same time.

This looks like something that might be a low-budget BBC original.

These folks don’t know where to go.

IV. Narrative via Implication

Lest you think that all event cards are bad, I’m going to hit you with such a barrage of event cards that your fingers will tire of turning them over — and still, these are good event cards.

First, though, let’s talk about implication.

Implication is best understood as two stages of a single process. In the first stage, implication is the uncovering of something. In the second, it’s the linking of the thing uncovered to the character who did the uncovering.

I’ll explain. Think back to when I talked about running into that [terrifying monster]. The problem with such an occurrence is twofold. Okay, morefold than that, including the ease of bypassing said monsters, but let’s stick to two.

First, these encounters happen all the time. Possibly every turn. You’ve probably heard that it’s a central rule of horror films to not show the monster. Like all rules, this isn’t always true, but there’s a kernel of truth in there. The more you show the monster, the less mysterious it becomes. Translated to narrative board games, the more I’m asked to deal with [terrifying monsters], the less terrifying they become. Shown too often, they even become silly. A good example is the stormtroopers of Star Wars and their famously crummy aim. This is a problem with the first stage of implication: something is uncovered too quickly or too often, when it should be held in reserve.

Second, these monsters are often disconnected not only from any rational sequence of events (a plot), but also from any action of my own undertaking. They’re just something that happens, presumably to everybody, within the universe of [Fantasy Flight licensed property]. I didn’t choose to flip an event card. It’s just a phase of my turn. Refresh equipment and abilities, move, take actions, flip another event card, murder yet another [terrifying monster]. I’m seeing too much, but what I’m seeing isn’t the result of me looking. The opposite should be true. Doubly so if we’re talking about anything Lovecraftian.

To put it crudely, the bad things that befall me should generally be my fault. In both stages of implication, the stakes are nothing less than the character’s sense of agency. The more you look, the more you see. And that’s where narrative board games stumble.

Also prepare to be very frustrated when your blue crayon doesn't color as well as your black or green crayon, and all the sudden you feel like a kindergartner.

Prepare to stumble, but in a good way.

Enter Rocky Mountain Man. This is a crayon game about exploring a range of mountains whose name you’ll never guess, parlaying with natives and trying to discover landmarks, and sometimes being exposed to sheer horror that kills half your expedition and sends you running for the comforts of civilization. These events are capricious, yet they nearly always feel like your fault because the game knows how to do implication.

There’s no such thing as an “event card” in Rocky Mountain Man. Instead, you flip cards to signify a whole range of possibilities. If you sit around, you’ll flip a card to move nearby encounters. Indian tribes, Spanish dragoons, that sort of thing. If you move into an unexplored space, you’ll flip a whole bunch of cards to determine the lay of the land. One card for trouble, one for geography, another for rivers, a fourth in case you discovered something cool, another in case you ran into an encounter, and still another to move other nearby encounters. Oh, and you’ll be rolling dice as well. You might get lost. Or tip while paddling your canoe over rapids. Or meet a band of Indians who aren’t amenable to being displaced, in which case you might roll to determine how they behave, then for combat, then to determine the horrible things that befell your party.

In other words, Rocky Mountain Man isn’t exactly inventing innovative methods to bypass event cards and die rolls. The exact opposite: it wants you to draw and roll as often as possible. Its trick is that nearly everything bad that happens to you is your fault.

I don’t mean in the sense that you deliberately got mauled by a bear. Rather, that you chose to travel too haphazardly, which forced you to draw a card. This works because Rocky Mountain Man is a race. When playing with two people, you’re competing (in real-time!) to map as much of the Rockies as possible. In a solo campaign, you’re rushing (again, in real-time!) to reach particular destinations, or gather pelts, or chart a river, before winter falls and you’re forced to sit around in a cabin eating all your supplies and sometimes dying of frostbite. That’s if you expended the time and effort to build the cabin. Otherwise you’ll die of frostbite much faster.

Of course, it’s impossible to do anything without taking risks. The mere act of moving into an uncharted space means you’re forced to spend enough movement points that you’ll be drawing a whole bunch of cards. But the risks are always the result of your actions, and there are loads of ways to minimize the dangers of traveling. You could stick to previously mapped routes. You could pick your way through safe terrain. You could give nearby Indian tribes a wide berth. Except you aren’t going to do those things, because you’re here to map terrain and see natural wonders and sometimes trade with Indians. You’re here to stretch yourself, otherwise you wouldn’t be playing the game.

like a LOT

You’ll flip a lot of these.

This means you’re always drawing way more “events” than you’d draw in a run-of-the-mill narrative game. The critical distinction is that the cards are mostly the result of your actions. It’s possible, for example, to cool off. Maybe someone in your party dies because they ate poisonous berries. Oops, it was your doctor. Crap. Now you want to return to someplace you can recruit another doctor, whether back in Missouri or at the mountain man rendezvous. This presents you with a choice: travel a long distance safely across mapped terrain or the short way across the unknown? Both have drawbacks. Even slow travel isn’t entirely safe. And traveling through the unknown isn’t necessarily deadly. If you want to be cynical about it, it’s a crapshoot, even a false choice. But the quantity and type of events you’ll draw are based on that decision. You’ll never just “draw for danger” unless you put yourself in the situation to do so. Most of the time you will. But the choice is yours. Everything is your “fault.”

That’s the second problem of implication solved. Moving back to the first problem, encounters are rare, and even more rarely dangerous. Meeting an Indian tribe is usually an opportunity more than a danger. But when an encounter becomes dangerous, you feel it. Hiding isn’t always possible. Combat is simple but tends to deposit lots of hits on your party. These are usually resolved by killing party members, significantly weakening your position going forward. And your next few turns will likely be spent getting the hell away from the tribe that kicked the snot out of you.

To rehash, the two-step problem of implication is (1) that [terrifying monster] events are so common that they lose their edge, and (2) they aren’t often your fault. Rocky Mountain Man solves these by (1) making them rarer but more impactful, and (2) ensuring that most things are the result of your decisions, even if those are decisions you want to take because that’s what the game is about.

With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine a game set in the Lovecraft Mythos that actually touches upon Lovecraftian themes, such as the madness that comes from tapping into hidden knowledge, rather than reducing supposedly unfathomable cosmic monstrosities to shotgun fodder. Instead of drawing an event every turn, imagine drawing events only when you research. Research, of course, is desirable — how else are you going to close those planar gates? Research can also be prepared for, but since you’re on the clock, too much preparation can mean failure. With some trust in our players, we could even let them pass the entire game without witnessing anything cosmic at all. Until they lose in a surge of twisting limbs, anyway. We trust that they will press forward despite the risks, because that’s why they’re playing the game. Even then, most encounters are benign. A shoggoth appears! Except shoggoths don’t care about puny mortals. So even the appearance of a [terrifying monster] becomes an opportunity for more study. But when it goes wrong, it goes terribly wrong. You take hits, lose equipment and assistants, and spend the next little while running and hiding.

Most narrative games have no idea how to use implication to tease out their encounters and get players invested in them. But getting players invested isn’t an impossibility. It’s just hampered by an overreliance on boring formulas instead of looking for novel solutions. Or even, as in Rocky Mountain Man’s case, a non-novel solution.

I'm economical in my re-use of graphics. Space-Biff!: against NFTs. You can quote me on that.

This again.

V. Narrative via Plot

In most cases, plot is synonymous with narrative: a story. More specifically, a plot is a narrative in which the arrangement of its parts is essential. Most often, A leads to B leads to C. Droid escapes to planet, boy meets space wizard, space wizard explodes. Pretty sure that’s how that goes. Even if it isn’t, I just made a plot. That might sound a lot like narrative, and it’s true that they’re almost always used interchangeably. Here, though, it’s useful to delineate “plot” as the narrative provided by the game, while “narratives” are the things we come up with all the time on our own.

One of the huge risks with narrative games is that they present all sorts of exposition, but because those expository elements aren’t arranged into a sequence, they never cohere into a plot. Any narrative derived from the game is something you provide on your own. Since we’re solipsistic islands of meaning, these self-made narratives run the risk of becoming like my friend who blabbered through a session of Zombicide — isolated to one person rather than being a shared experience between players.

For the most part, board games either tackle the problem of plot clumsily or avoid it altogether. Avoidance is perfectly reasonable. Providing exposition and trusting your players to generate their own narrative is how most games function. In narrative games, the goal is somewhat different. We’re here to go on an adventure — to share a plot rather than spinning narratives in isolation. So we receive an overarching goal, we draw event cards that represent complications, and we resolve to read all the flavor text until ten minutes into the game we quietly stop bothering.

It’s easy to see why most games don’t put in the effort. Plot is hard. Too little and we forget why we’re playing this game. Too much and we’re hardly playing a game anymore. Instead, we’re reading an account of somebody else’s RPG session. In all likelihood, we’re also wondering why we aren’t playing an RPG ourselves.

Ryan Laukat’s Sleeping Gods is not like playing somebody else’s RPG.

If you pan to the right, you'll see that the spiral binding constitutes plot holes. Haha!


You should know that I’m gaga for Sleeping Gods. You should also know that I’m listed in the rules as a “consultant,” which means I told Ryan I didn’t like an early combat system, told him I preferred a later combat system (but still didn’t love it), and sat down with him for a few hours to talk about why his writing wasn’t coming together as well as he wanted. My hand in this thing’s design was incredibly minor. I was surprised to see myself in the rulebook. Still, my involvement means you should take that into consideration when reading what follows.

Sleeping Gods is about trying to get home. When Ryan described the goal of the game to me, he called it “Skyrim as a board game.” To some degree this is true. You can travel in any direction, visit any port, and stumble into encounters far beyond your capacity to manage. There are loads of magical MacGuffins necessary to succeed in your journey, but it isn’t possible to gather more than a handful before the game’s timer runs out. Oh, and it’s a board game through and through. It will end, for one thing, although the conclusion will probably take a few sessions to reach. There are systems to manage, both small (combat, skill checks) and large (managing resources, health, command tokens). It is not somebody else’s RPG session.

Even so, there’s an enormous quantity of writing in the game, mostly found in the storybook. Laukat has done storybook games before, although these were generally bolted over the top of otherwise regular optimization games, which had the effect of making the story stuff feel disjointed and unnecessary. That lopsided approach isn’t inverted here so much as brought into balance. The storybook is essential, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t preoccupied with game-stuff.

Like I said, I’m gaga. Here I am reviewing the thing in the middle of an article about narrative and exposition.

One of them is my damage dealer. The other is my wound-taker.

Plot people.

But there’s a reason for this sliver of context. Sleeping Gods has one of the best approaches to plot I’ve witnessed in a board game, and it has everything to do with how Laukat meters out his paragraphs of exposition.

In most cases, you sail to a port and chat with some people to earn a few quest cards. These send you to a nearby area, where you hunt for the proper landmark. Upon landing, you check the keywords on your quest cards against the storybook’s page for that destination. Say, you land in a jungle where you can hunt snails for food. If you have the SNAIL KILLER keyword, you can chase down a bounty on a particularly nasty snail. No, this is not a real example.

Crucially, everything is gated like this. It’s common to reach a new location and skim past three or four keywords before getting down to the business of greeting the locals. Other times, resolving a quest gives you another card without another keyword. Sometimes, these can even appear later. Your stack of keywords soon becomes as familiar as the members of your crew and the artifacts you’ve accumulated. In a way, they’re a shorthand version of the larger plot you’ve been wandering through.

I don’t want to give anything away, but I will vaguely mention one encounter. My crew met a [terrifying monster], who we [hoodwinked]. This gave us a keyword. We didn’t think much of it, since we didn’t intend to revisit the [terrifying monster]’s location. Except we stumbled upon another remote island at a later date that had the same keyword. The [terrifying monster] had caught up with us. Consequences ensued. Everybody at the table was about to riot.

Plot! Sleeping Gods brims with the stuff.

This isn’t the only game to tinker with sequences of events — last year’s Forgotten Waters put its app to good use through similar usage of keywords and lasting consequences, and Robinson Crusoe had its players shuffle cards into an event deck from which they might appear later. These games work as storytellers because they create sequences of story beats, which to our pattern-hungry brains use to fashion narratives. The key is that these narratives don’t exist in isolation. Unlike underutilized exposition, they’re meant to stick together, reinforcing decisions with longer-term outcomes than an immediate penalty or reward. Unlike player-generated narratives, they’re enforced by the game, permitting one batch of exposition to link to the next, reducing the risk of them being forgotten.

Basically, most narrative games have an idea of plot that looks like A, A, A, and then hopes you don’t notice that none of these expositions go anywhere. Sleeping Gods provides B and C.


Kapow. Whammy. Plink.

Narrative games are a popular genre. They also happen to be an often-clumsy genre that misunderstand the difference between exposition and narrative.

But there’s hope to be had. As designers and critics discover meaningful ways to craft and discuss narratives in board games, the effect can only be positive. The above items are not meant as an exhaustive list, but a selection of possibilities. By using memetic cues as a shorthand for larger concepts, studying how other mediums use implication to lend weight to the agency of their characters, and focusing on sequences of story beats to string together exposition into plots, a number of board games have made strides in how they tell narrative-based stories.

Space wizard explodes.


In the next installment of Talking About Games, we’re looking at two games that “greenwash history” to cushion the blow of difficult actions. Best of all, you can read it right now on Patreon.

(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

Posted on June 24, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I say the Roman Empire died the day that Justinian did.

  2. You can think of narrative emerging from games as the players searching for the ‘why’ of the bunch of ‘whats’ that happen(ed) during the game. The more the players have to reach for tenuous explanations of why event A happened and then event B happened, the less narrative the game seems to have. So if there is a lot of random events in your game, for example, chances are they are only randomly going inspire narrative in the minds of the players. Ideally the why is driven directly by player decisions – then the narrative will seem strong. Players will tend to invent narrative during play as an explanation for their decisions. Inventing fictional reasons for attacking another player, for instance, out of the colour and detail the game provides, as a smokescreen for a plain mechanical point grab.
    I think its a bit of a mistake to go for narrative from a top down view – the overall structure of a ‘proper story’ when you are talking about games… the player is participating in a story, not telling a story. They want to strongly feel the moment to moment experience of narrative as they play. The adherence of the sum of those moments to some ideal narrative structure is not important. the basic building block of a narrative moment is situation->decision->consequence. And the more often the consequence of one decision affects the situation of the next decision, the better.

  3. This blog on narrative is an absolute treasure for game designers/developers. I’ve seen few people in the board game industry that can consistently take difficult subject matter and distill it down to the masses like a fine aged scotch ready to just enjoy or even better, pour a little into their next game design. Thanks brother.

  4. Avian Overlord

    I’d say 476 for the West. It’s at least on par with the end of the republic and start of the empire in terms of change, and we have no problem giving that a date despite that change also being gradual.

  5. Nice!
    I do think, however, that you are selling event cards a little short. In Arkham Horror 2nd ed for instance, you get event cards based on going to specific locations and choosing to have an event (because you’re exploring) rather than having a standard encounter (like buying stuff). So when the terrible monster appears, it’s because you chose to go to the graveyard to dig for treasure, you utter fool.

    Also, Runebound (both 2nd and 3rd edition) has something resembling the plot from Sleeping Gods (which I’m also very much gaga for). Sometimes you draw an event card (as a rsult of
    choosing to explore a specific area) which will tell you to go somewhere in order to obtain something. It’s not much of a plot, especially since all the information is there on the card, but it’s in the same vein. Especially with quest cards in 3rd edition where you are told to visit a specific area and only then roll dice to see what result on the card you activate.

  6. This is a good dissection of why some ostensibly narrative-driven games don’t create much of a narrative. I think the memetic one is hard to pull off in practice. I think of Betrayal at House on the Hill, which is ultimately a progression of horror-genre “memes” – “Oh, howling in the distance!”, “Ooh, a clock that goes to 13!”, “Oh dear, the piano is playing by itself!” — but they don’t really assemble into a coherent narrative.

    I agree that progression is crucial to narrative but I think possibly even more fundamental is /stakes/. I may have mentioned my appreciation for C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War, which impressively finds a coherent narrative thread through the chaotic mess that was the TYW, but crucial to the reader’s engagement of the narrative is that she lays out the stakes of the conflict: the possibility of a Protestant king in Bohemia leading to a Protestant Holy Roman Emperor, and the need of the Spain to control the Rhineland to move its Italian infantry to resume the war on the United Provinces, both of these swirling around the larger concern of putting a check on Hapsburg power. You care about the progression because you see what the stakes are.

    Or take another example: a soccer guy once punched a ball into the goal with his hand. Ok, that’s mildly interesting but not really. But when it’s one of the greatest players of all time, Diego Maradona, playing in a knockout game in the World Cup, between England and Argentina (and all the bad blood between those two countries), now it becomes the most famous goal of all time, the “Hand of God” goal, because of the stakes.

    Now I think in a game, the act of stepping into the magic circle itself creates some stake for the player, and a good progression can amplify this by generating investment. Much like a joke with a good setup line or a story with a good dramatic problem, a progression sets up tension that players now want to see resolved in a satisfying way. And I wonder if that’s the real failing of games like Betrayal or of the “Whack-a-monster” type games you rightly decry: not that they don’t hit legitimate narrative beats but that they fail to build up any tension, and thus whatever stake players felt in the game’s outcome diminishes.

  7. I’m rereading this for clues as to whether I should buy Sleeping Gods or signs of you trashing a popular game with the A-A-A structure, based on your recent Tweets.

  8. @Jeff good point – strong stakes/goals help a lot. Amassing points or gold isnt as strong narratively, for instance, as shooting for something specific and concrete.

    BHH is an interesting one because it mirrors horror movies fairly accurately – witless numpties blundering about doing inconsequential things in a random sea of special effects until a ghost/monster pops out and survivors kill it. Its probably a good case study to work out why some horror movies are even enjoyable in the first place, cos it certainly aint strong narrative!

  9. When I first started playing card games like, Shadowverse, MTG, and Netrunner, the people within this subculture would refer to some decks as meme decks. I assumed, a meme deck was the one everybody copied – just like a meme, spreading through culture. After much confusion trying to understand their language, I realised they meant something else. They were using the word meme as a synonym for joke. So for them, a meme deck is one where a player puts their deck together, with a bit of a laugh, to see if it’ll work against the strongest decks. To this day, it still makes no sense to me; a meme deck should be the decks everybody copies. But it’s another example of alternate usage of language within board gaming culture that creates confusion. Like your previous article on theme – board gamers still have no idea what theme actually means and will praise a game’s theme when all they’re really admiring are the aesthetics.

    Thank you for another great article that I learned from and enjoyed reading.

    • Oh wow, that’s another interesting usage of the word! I’ll have to keep that in mind going forward. Thanks for sharing.

    • Miles Hubble

      Sorry, but that use of the word ‘meme’ is not solely the purview of board gaming culture. Arguably, the use of ‘meme’ as ‘joke’ has eclipsed its original meaning to the point that no one uses it to mean something that is copied. Besides a funny picture on the internet, a meme can also be a joke, a prank, or an intentionally wonky action prone to failure (e.g. “Hey, quit meming!” Human beings and animals can be memes (Trump, Kanye, Harambe, etc.). So unless you’re a prescriptivist, the word should not conjure any ‘oughts’ when it comes to usage.

      • To be clear, I am aware of cultural memes and I did not just think it had an alternate meaning in card gaming culture. I was specifically referencing meme-decks, and writing about the confusion that caused because of its somewhat ironic definition.

        You may be being hyperbolic sating “no one uses it to mean something copied.” I’ve heard people use the word meme in the same way Richard Dawkins would use it, or South Park, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone substitute ‘joke’ for ‘meme’. I’m not saying people don’t use it that way, but not in my cultural circles.

        In response to your prescriptivist comment, I understand the English language is one in flux, but I will add words have value and meaning and because of that, ‘oughts’ need to apply.

        I will also add, subcultures have input into their vernacular, which is why I’ve praised Dan’s articles as he one of the leaders of this community. Just because some people may be using the word ‘meme’ as ‘joke’, doesn’t mean we cannot use the word for it’s other definitions and doesn’t mean one cannot learn of it’s other usages.

        Although some people in the board gaming community use the word ‘theme’ as ‘illustrated subject matter’, doesn’t mean there is no room within this culture to expand upon its current common usage to one that has depth and synergises with the other aspects of a board game.

        Hopefully this comment clarifies my previous statement.

    • There’s a similar concept in some computer games like Dota, “meme builds”, a strategy based on a joke or amusing gimmick (rather than being competitively robust). But they’re still a “meme” in that they spread, people hear about them and imitate them, and they become instantly recognizable. In my experience, meme decks in card games also imply cultural spreading, even if just verbally (if nobody talks about your joke, then it wasn’t funny). In much the same way that putting a caption on a photo doesn’t necessarily make it a meme, until someone thinks it could have multiple uses and imitates the original.

      So it’s not an incorrect usage of “meme” either!

  10. I know this wasn’t intended as an exhaustive overview but I think the article could have explored another wing of narrative as derived from mechanisms.

    In the independent digital game scene, the term “dynamic meaning” was coined for games which completely usurp exposition in favour of allowing narrative to arrive purely from gameplay.

    In Jason Rohrer’s Passage, players are flung into a pac man style maze and as as they play the game and begin to move from left to right, they pick up cues that things in the game world are changing. And so is their pixelated avatar. The more they move right, the more things change and yet even if they stand still or move backwards, up or down, time is seemingly passing. Very slowly at least.

    The more you play the more you begin to understand the allegory: that derived purely from gameplay, the narrative of the passage of time and of your journey through it is born. Not immediately obvious, through play it creeps up within you.

    And so do I believe that tabletop games are inherently great at telling narratives through their gameplay. Flicking a stack of tokens in SEAL team Flix, rather than a single one, feels like you are firing a powerful yet inaccurate shotgun. That such a heightened token can move over a door chit fully infers the damage done to the door!

    A different example I always lean on is found within Lorenzo Il Magnifico in which even its biggest fans might even claim that it is but another soulless Euro with a pasted on theme (or setting). To the contrary, when you begin to think about the gameplay on subtextual terms, a strong historical setting is conveyed and your efficiency decisions can begin to take on a narrative hue. Perhaps in a way much like your good friend’s imposed zombicide narrative but where Lorenzo Il Magnifico differs is that the narrative is actually stored within the mechanisms and much smaller leaps of interpretation are needed.

    For instance, when you take or purchase a card called “Foreign Labour” and the game responds by gifting you a windfall of “servant” meeples, the narrative or at least the thought of foreign labour is conveyed in a full yet small way. Similarly if I purchase the “rebuild the cathedral” card and I notice that I am paying for the card with a lot of stone and a little wood (and perhaps a servant or 2), the game invisibly winks at me and allows me, if I want to, to see its narrative.

    That this can all be ignored and played for optimisation is actually a strength and not a weakness of the medium; and ultimately, what I am trying to say here is that board game are already great at inferring narratives through systems. Designers just need to be aware that they are and begin to more actively lean on the minutia of a game’s mechanisms as building blocks of narrative. Because if they do not, as digital games and your [monster] example can show, there can arrive a dissonance between an intended plot/narrative and what players are actually doing with the components or mechanisms.

    Avoiding that mismatch is all about thinking about and accepting that mechanics have pockets of meaning all of their own; detached from event card exposition, crossroad decisions or storybook’s with look up algorithms.

  11. Great topic. I wish the writing was more focused, less meandering, less funny couldn’t get myself to read the entire thing.

  12. I’d be interested in your thoughts on Ambush, if you get to play it.

  13. This is one of the disappointing things about pandemic legacy season 0, though a fantastic game, there is a lot of tacked on bloated narrative. I can’t really go into specifics because of spoilers but the game already creates a narrative unique to the groups playthrough, and adding in loads of character dialogue does little to enhance that.

  14. I wrote a blog post that reacted to this post a bit, and that contemplates game designs like Oath that can go from Genesis 50 to Exodus 1, as it were. Better late than never, I suppose!

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