Storytelling in the Modern Board Game: Narrative trends from the Late 1960s to Today

Marco Arnaudo

Jefferson: McFarland, 2018

9-781476-669519

Marco Arnaudo’s new book, Storytelling in the Modern Board Game joins the growing body of critical work on analogue games, finding a place alongside books such as Paul Booth’s Game Play (2015), Stewart Wood’s Eurogames (2012), Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World (2012), and Pat Harrigan and Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Zones of Control (2016).

Following a brief gesture towards the ludology-narratology debate, the book offers a taxonomy of storytelling games. Much of this will be familiar from classic narratology (‘content is present’, ‘events represented… are related thought a sense of causation’), others from game studies (‘the design leaves a degree of uncertainty’, ‘content and mechanics converge’, ‘characters have goals and objectives’). Other aspects are perhaps more likely to provoke discussion. The reliance on character, for example, which dominates Arnaudo’s taxonomy (‘players control individual characters’) leads to a very specific understanding of storytelling. The same might be said of the emphasis on mimetic representation (‘rules and mechanics of the game mirror the underlying dynamics of the content they represent’, ’the strategies employed by the players mirror the strategies the characters would use in the world of the game). No doubt there’s much that will provoke questions from the perspectives of both narratology and ludology, but the list as presented is helpfully bold. Indeed, a good deal of the book’s value comes in providing statements that demand further consideration from the reader. Which of these criteria, for example, are problematic, and why? Which are the most useful? Some of the answers to these questions emerge in the book that follows while others perhaps don’t, and in both cases useful work is being done.

Having laid this groundwork, the book goes on to explore the parameters of storytelling games with chapters on Dungeons & Dragons and J.R. Tolkien’s world building. These chapters establish a distinction between ‘Dungeonesque’ and ‘Tolkienesque’ games, terms the author uses ‘indifferently’ to denote games that focus on individual stories of exploration and grander scale operations respectively. Unsurprisingly, following a definition that focuses on the role of individual character in storytelling, the chapters that follow concentrate attention on games in the Dungeonesque mode.

The remainder of the book combines a history of storytelling games with a series of thought-provoking notes on the ways in which story operates in board games. More precisely, the book considers RPGs, tabletop wargames, and board games, the evolution of which is so closely intertwined as to make separating them out a near impossible, and, as Arnaudo demonstrates, undesirable task. In all of this, much space is given over to accounts of the workings of the games under discussion. This is perhaps a necessary move in a book covering such a wide range of material. While at times these descriptions risk edging out the book’s theoretical insights, overall the approach works extremely well (Arnaudo’s knowledge of games appears encyclopaedic) with the key arguments emerging through detailed case studies.

Amongst the many ideas put forward, one consistent thread lies in the challenges designers face in combining meaningful choice/interactivity in games with storytelling which is, traditionally at least, seen as a linear form. On this issue Arnaudo suggests that ‘[t]he designer of a story-oriented game must therefore be seen not as a new author but as a mediator’ (63). This process entails a rethinking not only of authorship, but also of the function of rules: ‘To tell a playable story one must provide a framework of rules that is tailored to the needs of the representation’ (80). Here representation is prioritised over the purely ludic aspect of games, a fact that is unsurprising given the book’s subject matter, and this ultimately feeds into the discussion of games which find their strength not in the quality of their rulesets but in the narrative experiences that they provide. Doubtless these games (and Arnaudo’s argument) will appeal to certain audiences more than others.

Accordingly, in his discussion of Graeme Morris’s Legend of Heroes (TSR, 1987), Arnaudo argues that ‘Like in Talisman and other games of this type, randomness here is preponderant, and strategy is minimal… these shortcomings are counterbalanced by a tight verbal structure that truly creates the impression that the game is telling a story’ (112). A similar argument is advanced in relation to the hugely popular Betrayal at House on the Hill (Avalon Hill, 2004) of which Arnaudo says that ‘it is simply inconceivable that the players would enjoy it mainly for the strength of its rules and mechanics’ (162). The answer, it seems, lies in recognising the narrative experience that the game makes possible, a suggestion that goes a long way to making sense of the fact that games of this kind have a tendency to divide opinion (and players).

Finally, as the discussion reaches the near present, the argument about choice and narrative comes to be connected with the issue of replayability. This is, of course, a real challenge to storytelling board games which have traditionally been tasked (in a way that is perhaps not the case for video games) with combining meaningful narratives with the possibility of multiple plays. Here Arnaudo’s arguments are well supported by developments in contemporary board games where the consumers’ desire for story appears to be demonstrated by the proliferation of legacy games such as Rob Daviau and Matt Leacock’s Pandemic Legacy (Z-Man Games, 2015) and one-play scenarios such as those seen in Nikki Valens’ Mansions of Madness (Fantasy Flight, 2016).

Storytelling in the Modern Board Game is a useful, and enjoyable study of the ways in which analogue games offer their players satisfying narrative experiences. As a history of the development of the form it’s a compelling read, and the insights it offers into narrative and games have much to offer to hobbyists, designers and academics alike.

 

Paul Wake