On Seeking that Elusive “Cardboard Flesh.”

“We humans are no longer creatures of planetary worlds. We belong now to the places in between and to the crafts that fold their way through boundless drifts of space. We are people of the deep.”

This is an excerpt from a recent “doodle” and represents the latest in the great litany of “ideas for games that I will probably never make.” I am, like many a board game fan, full of ideas about possible games, but really have no clue as to how one would give such an idea cardboard flesh (so to speak). This is, of course, one of the reasons while I have started this diary.

My dreams are usually about themes, something I think it would be cool to play a game “about.” (E.g.: games about the transmigration of souls in Ancient Greek polytheism, games about space travel modeled after early medieval metaphysics, games about astronomy and astral magic—all very cool and all equally unrealized possibilities). I think this is simply to dream about the part of board gaming that I find the most engaging, the union in a game of its theme with that theme’s communication through a system of rules.

Ability cards for Gloomhaven‘s Spellweaver.

My favourite games are the ones where the theme and the game play feed into one another, games where neither mechanics nor theme could standalone and where story and system inform and imply one another.

(By way of illustration, in Gloomhaven, the way that your hand of cards represents your character’s abilities, their health, and their stamina is, for me, a near perfect union of game mechanic and story telling. At the start of a game, you hand brims with possibility, but the more turns and hits you take the smaller your hand gets, shrinking your options just as your character gets more fatigued. Other examples: Robo Rally, Agricola, PandemicForbidden Desert too; Matt Leacock, how do you do it?! Perhaps an example to the contrary is the one beef I had with Silk.).

How these two sides come together is, for me, a chicken and egg scenario. What comes first, the rules or the story they communicate? In some perfect games it seems like the two came into existence fully formed.

I’m willing to bet that if I asked an experienced designer what makes those “near perfect” games come to life, they would say only after hours and hours of play testing, countless failed experiments, and dozens of discarded prototypes. That is, in any case, the impression I got from Cole Wehrl’s design diaries for his latest, Oath.

Art by Kyle Ferrin

What I find helpful about his diaries—something which was possible since they were written after the fact when the core design of the game was already complete—is Cole’s insistence that while the central vision for the game remained constant (an argument about the circular flux of power in political regimes), the embodiment of that idea only took shape over years through the brute force of experiment and discarded iterations.

The result, as it seems to be for Oath, is a game with an elegantly embodied theme such that to play the game is also to mediate upon and participate in the principles of its story (that was, at least, one person’s experience).

So maybe I do know “the way there”—hard work, practice, and courageous failure.

2 thoughts on “On Seeking that Elusive “Cardboard Flesh.”

  1. Justin says:

    Fascinating! I’m trying to imagine if it’s possible for a union between mechanics and theme that ultimately wobbles because one side of the equation isn’t properly executed. So if you can have a mechanic and theme that are inseparable, ‘born at once,’ but still seem disjointed because, say, the art is lacklustre or the mechanic fails to work in a particular situation. Can the union still be a union if both sides are unequally polished?
    I’m trying to think of examples, but I can only think of Gloomhaven at the moment. I love how characters’ movement mirrors their physical form (like the Brute’s strong ox-like body making these big shotgun blasts toward enemies). But man, some of those miniatures….let’s just say they leave something to be desired, haha. It seems to me that in this case the mechanic (different characters moving in different ways) draws me into the game’s world while part of the corresponding “theme”/aesthetic (still wondering if Spellweaver’s hands are supposed to be melting off) draws me out. Is this then a union? Don’t know if that makes sense, but great article, anyway.

    1. Matthew Joel says:

      I hadn’t even considered the role art plays when I was thinking through this, but of course it is such a huge factor. You’re right, Gloomhaven is a great example. Parts of the game do seem to have achieved “that union” and are super immersive, but when I compare some aspects of its art to another dungeon crawler like Descent, Descent does a much better job using its components to evoke a world (especially its floor tiles). Ultimately, Gloomhaven is by far my preferred game, but it’s something to think about.

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