A Board Game Can Be Bad – As in Evil. Wrong. One You Know Will Never Be Allowed In My House
Board game design is powerful. Simple and elegant. And, powerful.
A design can be “bad” because of artwork or graphic design. Pieces and boxes and distribution channels can be “bad.” But, they can all be improved. A game can also be BAD. As in, evil. As in, it should not be produced.
It is a beautiful thing, a board game. A somewhat simple system with a win condition. It presents itself as a set of exercises. The exercises required to play any game direct you to their meaning, whether you realize it or not. They affect you. And, because the objective of playing is to win… games reinforce a tacit value or set of values, in their exercises.
Now before you get started on me, omni-gaming community – I don’t suppose that playing GTA will make you WANT to kill random people or steal cop cars. GTA and the gnarliest of those sorts of sandbox games LET you do bad stuff and even have some missions to illustrate that the bad stuff is possible. That ain’t how you win, though. Board games are different, and marvelously so. I’ll trash some crappy video games, later, maybe. We’re doing board games, now.
I designed a math game for small children. You do arithmetic, quickly, and win if you do sound arithmetic faster than the others. It scales, so 6-14 year olds can all play at appropriate difficulties which are adjusted like golf handicaps. The theme is thin. Cute fish. The mechanics few – draw cards and solve math problems. Hope for the card you need, because ideally, you’ve already worked out the answer but need one of several correct numbers to get there. The exercise is arithmetic. The meaning is that being good at arithmetic is good. All of those things, and nothing else, make up the game. Artwork and graphic design come AFTER that. That isn’t the elevator pitch, to me. That’s the game. All the details I need. That’s what I need to know in order to know the game. Done!
One of the worst games I’ve ever experienced, except for perhaps one I designed named Harem, was called Monopoly. Originally this game was developed by Elizabeth Magie, who received $500 and precious little recognition for her having written the game. It was originally called the Landlord’s Game. Or, something to the tune. The mechanics randomly reward you with opportunities that you will, for the most part, take. Purely randomly, you may be fined by the law. Purely randomly, you may be able to take money from your friends and family. At one point, rolling dice and moving around the board will yield a winner and some barely contentious hopefuls. There will be some trading, but the winner will be obvious. Then, the rest of the players will watch as the obvious winner further develops their ability to subdue the hopefuls. And the game continues for twice again as long, or until someone flips the board; which I believe to be the appropriate response as soon as someone suggests Monopoly in the first place.
The VALUES of the EXERCISE of playing Monopoly include that people’s fortunes come from luck. That you must patiently witness your own downward spiral, should your luck fail you ‘your shot at the 1 percent.’ There is no sense, but randomness, to the tenets of justice. You could be imprisoned for no better reason than a bad roll of the dice. Justice is blind. Wrong place, wrong time. The winner of this hapless, hopeless, and sad game is obvious at about ONE THIRD of the way through. But, to truly play to the end, hopefuls must continue to helplessly watch their own decent into bankruptcy and destitution… for another couple of hours. Classic, right?
I like to think Elizabeth had some satire in mind when she wrote this dark saga of woe. If she did, Parker Brothers elected not to pick that up. But the worst exercise; the worst VALUES… are the ones the winner is made to embrace. A dark place. One that I, myself, was taken to by this game design…
I absolutely LOVE playing board games. I get to talk to my friends and family the whole time and be in the same space. We share the whole experience. That, compared to watching a television show on the same couch?! Forget about it. Board games are timeless. But… I have won a single game of Monopoly and I will never play again. I was 12 years old. And when I design games, I’m still inspired by it. Haunted by it.
I’m the youngest of a big family, which doesn’t lend itself to being the best and brightest at tactical games. But, Monopoly gave me this magical win. And not just a win! An incredibly exciting opportunity. A chance to slowly and painfully drain my family member’s resources and revel in my inevitable rise to power! At one point… my cousin tried to make a trade with me for property I didn’t even want. I refused, flatly! And within minutes, they landed on a hotel of mine. I took the money anyway. They got nothing. I was on TOP! Upper class. Rockefeller. They were less than me… and there was no way out of it! Hahahahahah!!!
Monopoly had made me a happily vicious and unyielding tyrant. It still bothers me how much of a rush that was, even at 12.
We did NOT play to the end. I don’t think anyone does. My merciful brother flipped the board.
Though, only in retrospect was it “mercy.” A kindness, to shake me from the mania this game design had brought me to. Thanks, bro. J
When I stormed off, I was seeing red. Moments ago, after years of being the youngest and least likely to win, I was superior to EVERYONE! And, he’d ruined it! I made one of those angry 12 year old vows that of course I forgot before morning. I would hate him forever and one day exact my VENGEANCE!
There are at least fifty permutations of artwork and design published for Monopoly. But, it doesn’t change what matters. Art and design do not change that you have a responsibility as a designer, in this old medium, to use your art to affect good in the world. In homes.
The mechanics, the win condition and the play time. Those things have meaning. The most fundamental of elements. They make a game capital letters GOOD, or capital letters BAD.
Board game design is powerful.
If you do it. Please… do it good. 😉