Storytelling mechanics, part two: board games

Last time I wrote about mechanics in roleplaying games that enhanced the storytelling. But what about board games?

Not all board games are about storytelling, but a lot of what are (in the US at least) called German-style games carry storytelling elements in the mechanics they use.

Here are two of my favorite examples.

He’s Not Dead

Roleplaying games tend to be heavy on the paperwork – you might track hit points, and ammunition, and encumbrance limits, and so on. This is manageable because each player has a character sheet and have paper and pencil to make note of these details.

Board games have less scope for heavy note taking. Tracking the score is usually the most that is reasonable: the rest of the game state needs to be instantiated* in the board or the cards held by each player.

So when board games stray into the kind of territory usually occupied by roleplaying games, there needs to be some simple way to represent the information usually tracked by the players or the GM.

This is exemplified by Castle Panic, a cooperative tower defense game where the players are working together to protect their castle against attacking hordes of monsters emerging from the surrounding forest.

The monsters are defeated by attacks from the players using their soldier cards. If all the monsters could be defeated in a single strike then this would be pretty simple to manage, but most of them need two or three successful attacks before they can be removed as a threat. In other words, the monsters have hit points. Tracking those for each of the dozens of monster tokens would be a huge pain, but the tokens used have all the possible hit point values for the monster printed on them. When a monster is struck, if it has one hit point left then it is removed but otherwise you rotate the token to the next lowest value.

A physical mechanic is also used to track the state of the tower: six towers in the middle, with six walls around the outside of those. When a wall or tower is demolished, it is removed.

Castle Panic is a an exciting game to play, and these mechanics contribute greatly to the excitement by removing the need to keep notes as you go.

Thief, Farmer or Knight?

Carcasonne is one of my favorite games to play with my kids. You build the board as you go with randomly drawn tiles, and lay claim to portions of the board by placing your ┬átokens – also known as meeples – on the tile just played.

Your meeple can be a thief, knight, farmer, or monk by claiming a road, city, field or cloister respectively**. The role is indicated by the meeple’s location on the tile features, but the tiles shift very easily. The tricky bit in terms of tracking game state is that thieves and farmers tend to occupy similar looking tile portions: fields are bordered by roads. If the tiles shift (which happens all the time – it doesn’t need a clumsy player) then the meeples may be jerked off their spot.

The solution to this is that robbers are placed standing, while farmers are placed lying down.

Apart from arguably sarcastic commentary on farming as a career, this is a simple mechanism to record the meeple type without confusion. Now you just have to remember which field the farmer was in.

These have been some of my favourite game mechanics – what are yours?

[*] or reified, if you prefer your realisation verbs less entangled with programming jargon.

[**] these are the roles from the basic game.

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