I am a huge fan of Fantasy Flight Game’s (FFG) run of Lovecraft inspired board/card games, and play them as a whole, way more than almost every other board/card game my girlfriend and I own (which is a lot). There are a few reasons for this; I’m generally a big fan of the Lovecraftian mythos, FFG put out some top quality games, and they work for groups of varying sizes, unlike other games that can flounder with smaller or larger numbers of players. This isn’t my main reason for liking them though; I love the fact that while playing them, I get a genuine sense of being a part of the story.
In simplest terms this is done by appealing to the role player in me by handing me a character sheet to begin with, one that would pass muster in a pre-generated adventure one off. It contains a little bit on who the character is, and some basic stats that don’t need to much explanation to tell me what they specializes in. Don#t get me wrong, FFG aren’t the only company to do this though. Just looking into my full to bursting board games cupboard, I see Robo Rally there, and each of the eight little robots has a sheet with a quick description of their personality included. Sadly, this has no bearing on how the game is played, and each robot is in fact exactly the same in game terms; so it’s fun to be a robot, but that’s all you get to be. That’s not really a great help when it comes to relating to the character.
Horror and survival games seem to really go all out on this aspect of the board game, with several in the zombie survival genre coming with their own set of character sheets, and another from my collection, Betrayal at House on the Hill. Going back to FFG, Arkham Horror, Elder Sign and Mansions of Madness all come with character sheets too. maybe the games’ designers realise you might do more to keep a character alive if you get the chance to connect with them.
You might be wondering why this is such a big deal; well I’m a role player predominantly, and although character sheets aren’t a necessity for me to get into the role I wish to play, when it comes to a board game they really help you feel more attached to the character than if they weren’t included. Think of Monopoly: do you ever get a sense of attachment to the boot you’re moving around the board? Do you ever to stop to consider the decisions you’re making from the little dog’s point of view? I would think not. But when you’re handed a little bio of your character, and have an idea of some kind of motivation for what they’re doing, it means you start making decisions that are based more on what the character would do, and less on what you yourself would.
This to me, is one of the fundamental aspects of role playing. When what I do is influenced more by the world I’m playing in and the character I’m playing, than by my own motivations. There are discussions aplenty about there about meta gaming, and I invite my readers to search them out, as they can really help to hone your role playing. In a board game though, should this matter?
I say yes! Take the simple and wonderful card game Gloom. In it you play a miserable and weird family, with the aim of making them as miserable as possible before killing them in a variety of interesting ways. This can be played as a numbers game, or you can take the time to read the cards out as they’re played, to weave a story of melancholy and despair before the inevitability of the grave claims your family. Doesn’t that sound like more of in depth experience than just totting the numbers up and playing to win? OK, playing to win is kind of the point, but I hope you know what I mean.
All of this is also very important when looking at survival style games. Using the monopoly example again (for the record, I do enjoy playing it, just not as a role playing game), could you see yourself getting any kind of attachment to the wheelbarrow, and doing everything you could to save them from a hoard of zombies? I really doubt it, and I know I care a hell of a lot more about keeping a character alive if I have been given the chance to relate to them, and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Lets take a look at another popular survival game, Zombies!! I’ve played this many times and find my enjoyment quickly diminishes over time. The simple reason for this is that I don’t really care about my character. They’re just a coloured figure with a few points of life and bullets, and when they inevitably die, there is no sense of loss. Put a character from Mansions of Madness in the same situation, and all of sudden, they have a personality, and as a role player, they become my character and I want them to survive.
Does anyone else play board games like this, or am I reading way too much into things. And do people have their own stories of how board games have become so much more thanks to role playing out the character?