For Love of the Tale

Cole Medeiros is the cunning designer responsible for Gubs, published by Gamewright. I’d explain why I used the word cunning, but it’s an inside joke. I’ve only known Cole for less than a year, but he’s become one of my best friends. He’s full of strange ideas and wondrous, is relentlessly in pursuit of creating something fun, and is always looking for ways to stretch himself creatively. Cole is a good designer.

Cole has helped me with so many of my designs and I hope this is but one of many columns he’ll write for Hyperbole Games. Cunning. As a side note, after you finish reading Cole’s guest column, check out this excellent TED talk on creating a great story.

Guest Column by: Cole Medeiros (Gubcards.com)

My passion is story and that is exactly how I came to find myself playing games. I love a good story. Everyone does. Humans communicate primarily through stories and almost all entertainment we enjoy the most revolves around an unfolding series of events. What will happen next? Who will win the game? Wait and see…

My favorite board games are the ones that tell stories. Off the top of my head I think of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Warhammer Quest, Magic Realmand Twilight Imperium. Every time I’ve played any of these games the random cards and combinations of rules have dredged from the depths of my imagination a tale worth telling. One worth talking about long after it returns to the shelf. ‘Remember that time when…’ is a common phrase among my gamer friends, because we like to make memories out of these plastic bits and colorful cardboard.

For me a great board game is like a magical story generator. It has a bunch of moving parts, wheels, and cogs, like some mystical machine which grinds up your decisions and spits out a narrative. A good story connects people together. I like board games because I like that feeling of connection. I don’t game with someone who I wouldn’t enjoy getting a beer with. I want to push pieces around with friends around the table and laughter in the air.

A few things I’ve learned about story and board games:

1) Not everyone can appreciate a good story in a game. Some people are in it to win it and if they feel some random but epic event unraveled their carefully woven plan, they toss the game aside as a failure. Me, I once battled solo through an entire Warhammer Quest dungeon only to have my best warrior slip off a bridge and fall into a pit of lava. The culprit? Rolling two 1s in a row. I could not stop laughing.

2) Story does not mean flavor text. Actually, too much flavor can get in the way. Sometimes a card with just a picture and a game stat can spark so much more of the imagination. Magic Realm (which is an older game) has the most bland bits I’ve ever seen. For example, a treasure site called ‘The Pool’ is simply a chit with text on one side. But because of the amazing mechanics (and I would argue the lack of embellishment), my imagination goes wild, revealing a treacherous lake filled with a slimy guardian and glittering with unknown treasures.

3) All this being said, good story does not mean bad mechanics. No, a perfect game melds them together flawlessly, with story that fits with the mechanics so well it seems almost like a mnemonic device for remembering the rule’s specifics.

For some time now I’ve been working on a game which functions as a co-op RPG without a game master. I struggled for a while trying to force a ton of unique story elements into each card and each encounter. Then I realized something: it was completely unneeded. All I needed to do was make sure that the basic concepts fit together logically, and players would make their own stories. Random decks can accomplish this if they are assigned and designed correctly.

I draw three cards: Asteroid Field, Pirate, Damaged Engines. Suddenly I have a story! While traveling through an asteroid belt a stray rock struck my engines, damaging them, and making manuevering difficult. Which wouldn’t be a problem except it seems pirates are about to take advantage of the situation. If I survive the battle, it will be a nice epic little episode generated completely at random…