Prime Suspects – Tone-setting in board games

Every storyteller innately understands the necessity of preparing the audience for the developments that occur later in the story. Novels will introduce a character, define their basic attributes and personality early on, so that their actions later are plausible and result in a coherent story. Music and establishing shots ease audiences into scenes, and place a movie in a genre thereby announcing the implicit rules the movie will play with. A stand-up comic will describe something with a carefully rehearsed turn of phrase, dropped seemingly off-the-cuff and in passing, only so it can be called back on later in that set. All these things express the same simple idea of set-up and payoff, which is infinitely more effective and memorable, if the set-up was given its due diligence.

What about board games then? They clearly have a set-up phase in the physical sense. We place game components on the table, shuffle decks of cards, arrange them in a certain way and distribute bits and pieces to all involved. Despite the linguistic similarities, this is far from the same thing. Instead it has to do with resetting the game’s state before play begins properly. And by this point players should have already been prepared. Arthur Dent’s utter befuddlement at the madness he is faced with should have been established. Dr. Jones tendency towards hail Mary attempts to save himself from certain doom should have been introduced.

Game night? I’ll just wing it… what could possibly go wrong?

This article isn’t about what we do so we can start playing the game. This is about how we arrive at a certain frame of mind when we start play. One that makes us emphasize certain elements of play, while sidelining others. To borrow a term from miniature gaming: what happens when we are primed for a game?

As a piece of media, board games are quite unique in the sense that unlike literature, film or even theatre, they are strongly decentralized. What I mean by this, is that the elements that are considered secondary (or even peripheral and of little influence) in our consumption of other media, take on a more important role when we experience games. The people who sit next to us in the cinema, aren’t an assumed part of how we watch a movie. The book retailer or reviewer doesn’t factor into how well the story of a novel unfolds for us. With board games, other players are essential to what the game will become through play. They are arguably the biggest influence on the importance that the game will have for the group. Will play be the main activity tonight? Will it supplement some other desire to interact with others, or be used to occupy your mind with something less emotionally taxing? Or will the game simply be a pretext to achieve something else entirely? Before even going into questions of how the motivation of individual players feeds into inter-group dynamics and affects our social interaction, there is the time right before we start the actual game. What kind of context is the game placed in? What is our frame of mind once the decision has been made to play this one, specific game? I think that how the group is primed to approach a game immediately affects play, and by extension our gaming experience. It can lead to a mismatch of play style, that can obscure a design’s finer points but more importantly, leads to players having a middling or even bad time. It only makes sense to me to look at what goes into priming.

Theme is the cosplay part of game design

The most obvious and apparent factor in priming a group is the game’s presentation itself. The idea of “theming” is related to this, but I would draw a distinction between “theming” and “priming”. A game’s “theme” is supposed to carry you through the game. It’s supposed to make the rules more coherent and easier to understand. Ideally it even helps you to quickly grasp the risks and challenges that you have to face throughout the game. Priming, on the other hand, is done the moment you start playing the game. Everything from picking a game to starting it, sets you up for play. Once play begins, we’ve left set-up behind and are moving towards payoff. To that end a game’s art direction, the style and size of its components and everything up to and including the name of the game tells you about the experience of playing it.

One very obvious example of this is the party game Cash’n’Guns. Here you will play successful bank robbers arguing about splitting the loot. The game comes with six foam guns and play revolves around pointing these foam guns at each other and threatening to “shoot”, if a player doesn’t back away from getting their share of loot this round. The art of the game is cartoonish and silly. (The first edition got some criticism for its careless use of crime movie stereotypes, that echoed the arguably inherent racism of that film genre.)

The somewhat controversial, but highly sought-after 1st edition

This decision, along with the toy-like appearance of the game’s components, immediately sets the tone for the game. It unmistakably signals to players that this is a humorous, light-hearted experience despite the superficially dark subject matter: a Reservoir Dogs-style stand-off that may see players eliminated, i.e. “killed”. The tone is set by the game’s presentation – within certain limits of course – and by doing so certain player behaviour is implicitly considered out-of-bounds. Imagine approaching Cash’n’Guns as a deep, tactical game of social manipulation, tense arguments and card counting to get out alive. It is not impossible to do so, and if the rest of the group goes along with it, it’s even a functional way of playing it. But it’s quite obviously incongruous with the tone that art direction suggests. If you want to look at an example, where art direction is at odds with the realities of gameplay, I would suggest the Spanish card game Covenent / El Pacto. It is a fun, and quite clever game of memory with a strong dose of take that. The sudden reversals and surprising changes that routinely occur always end in laugh-out-loud moments at the table. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the game’s art direction that you are in for a funny and occasionally random game of blind guesses and tit-for-tat gameplay. You are primed to expect something thinkier, if not outright strategic.

The laughter just never ends with these guys…

Another great example of the same phenomenon is the social deduction game and totally not The Resistance with the series number filed off: Secret Hitler. A game that some people tend to reject outright based on the name alone. As one of the more popular rethemes (Secret Voldemort) shows, renaming the game into something more family-friendly can be all it takes to make it palatable. The decision to use lizard people as fascists in the game’s original art is also quite noteworthy. It suggests that this level of visual distortion (setting aside that is also doubles as a sly reference to some obscure conspiracy theory) also allows for a cleaner and deeper engagement with the game

Cue Bertolt Brecht’s estrangement effect

itself, as opposed to decoding its irony-infused politics. During its original release, a reddit user sat down to put “historically accurate” art into the game, by using photographs of the actual war criminals of the later Nazi regime. My immediate reaction as I flipped through the PDF files was to recoil in disgust at the thought of playing with that set. Does this possibly suggest that game art not only serves to correctly contextualize the tone but also the spirit in which the game should be played? With Secret Hitler this means that the historical events surrounding the era are neither normalized or trivialized through the game. Instead the gameplay invites you to focus on the group dynamics of distrust, doubt and fear, that enable fascists to rise to power and then maybe apply that experience to politics in the past and present.

As I have written above, board games are not a centralized type of media. By which I mean that there is no singular “core text” that we engage with, digest and think about. In that sense board games are different to books, movies and to some extent video games. Instead with board games it is the act of play itself, fueled by the personalities of the people involved, that provides the main thrust of what we experience, talk about and analyze. It only makes sense then, to also look what players do right before play begins. How do we prime ourselves? I think there are three distinct social roles that have the biggest influence here. Clearly there are many more such roles players inhabit during play. Some of them shift during the course of the game, some are swapped with others or even disappear as the game progresses. But these three roles are the ones I found most obvious to point out: the host, the rules-explainer and the uninitiated.

The host, by virtue of being the one to bring everybody together and host the game, naturally sets the boundaries for the activity. Their hospitality lays the groundwork for the kind of behaviour that is or isn’t accepted. It’s their responsibility and prerogative to call out behaviour that is out of bounds and inversely they are the ones to lead by example. If a host opts for a cheerful and pleasant tone with their guests, an abrasive or mean-spirited exchange will be jarring and unsettling. On the other hand with a host whose interactions are already full of “politically incorrect” ribbing and transgressive language that mocks and ridicules, that very same mean-spirited exchange will register merely as a heated continuation of the tone already set by the host. While a host doesn’t necessarily define a group’s approach to a game, they do establish the outer limits of what players will expect. Simply put cut-throat viciousness and backstabbing at the gaming table will be a much bigger surprise to you, when your host is soft-spoken, considerate and cares about you having a good time. And while these connections aren’t iron-clad like some law of physics, I’d argue that a clash of expectations will happen in such a circumstance, because the host’s behavior is used as a baseline for the rest of the evening. Their reactions and actions establish a norm for the group and the game night.

The other, more immediately noticeable influence on how a group will approach a game is of course the person explaining the rules to them. This is more than just laying out the procedure of play in an easy to follow and quickly memorized manner. It is arguably more important to accurately relay the tone of the game to the group, than it is to correctly lay out the particulars of how each individual step is implemented. This puts the emphasis on the performance of explaining rules, as this is how the essence of the game is communicated before the game itself starts. It is the performance that shapes the common ground on which players build their understanding of the game. A methodical and meticulous explanation suggests a similar mindset should be adopted during play. An explanation littered with jokes, witty observations about the game’s setting or just generally relayed in a way that suggests levity and nonchalance, encourages players to approach the game similarly. The performance of rules explanations probably warrants its own in-depth look, but for the most part I believe that its style should strive to do more than simply “not get in the way” of the technical details of specific rules. It’s main concern should maybe even be how to prime its audience for the experience to come. After all, this is how to get players to buy into the game. It’s what will jumpstart their working together to create a coherent experience, which should align with what the game’s rules cover and anticipate. I’ve found that finer points of a rule can be readjusted much quicker and easier, once there is agreement as to the tone of the game.

Following Chuck’s flamboyant explanation, a fun time was had by all!

Finally, we have the uninitiated: the people who are neither host nor rules explainer and are simply joining in to play a game. They often have a huge impact on setting the game’s tone. Ironically enough, they are also often the least aware of both their role and their influence in priming the group. It doesn’t really matter all that much if they know the game or not. Either way it’s their behaviour immediately before play begins, that massively contributes to the tone of the group. The host lays out the boundaries of permissible behaviour, but the uninitiated determine the tone and type of interaction that the game will be placed in. They are the ones who determine how the group interacts, and which group dynamics will be present at the table. Just because a game demands long-term strategic thinking and careful consideration of each move, a lively and talkative group won’t suddenly switch to stony silences of deep thought. Their interaction might very well change once the demands the game places on them become apparent, but that group will have still primed itself to first approach the game in the same mindset as they interacted before they started. Inversely, a quiet and introspective group that barely moves past the most superficial of pleasantries will take longer to warm up to a social deduction game that relies heavily on interacting with multiple layers of communication.

In a more general sense, the uninitiated determine what role the game plays within the group’s social interaction. Will the game be taken as the predominant means of interacting with others? Will it revolve around the goals and objective that the game spells out? Or will the game merely serve as a loose framework to engage each other? As a shared activity to lend some coherence to the group’s attempts at social interaction? Or maybe the game is just background noise, a conversation starter that disappears into the background eventually. A case in which accurately resolving the game’s procedure of play is seen as less important as it not impeding friendly conversation.

Music As A Weapon 5 Tour Featuring Disturbed, Korn and Sevendust
You’re right! Why wouldn’t these guys go for a game of Food Chain Magnate right now?

In most cases these questions are settled quickly and without being spelled out, simply by how the group responds to the rules being explained to them. You can usually tell how important each player wants the game to be, by how much attention they give (or don’t give) to the rules explanation.

The last factor that primes a group towards a game is its reputation. Or put differently the connotations that the game invokes (in name, designer or look) when introduced to the group. Obvious examples include Diplomacy, Monopoly or Cards Against Humanity. Within the hobby these games have something of a narrative of their own, which informs the expectations and assumptions that the group brings to the table (assuming players are familiar with that narrative of course). Diplomacy fans often boast that it is a friendship destroying game. This already primes people to expect strong emotions to play into the game. It might also lead them to guard themselves in expectation of later betrayals and broken promises. Cards Against Humanity has the reputation of overstepping lines of good taste in pursuit of humour through shock juxtaposition. This also primes players to expect a certain tone and style of banter at the table, and gets them to implicitly approve switching to raunchier language and content at the table.

A setting to trick you into thinking you care who dies

But a game’s reputation can also stem from using an established IP to package the game. Famously the Game of Thrones board game drapes itself in the sudden upsets of the source material’s Red Wedding to suggest a game of uneasy alliances and devastating betrayals. Even though the game’s design does the barest of minimums to actually pit players against each other (i.e. a lack of allied victories), and even less to support an alliance amongst them. Yet players who are familiar with the source material tend to slip into certain interactions with their immediate neighbours, prompted as much by the map’s layout as the echoes of the fantasy saga’s… let’s call it… story in the player’s heads. Similarly Mountains of Madness did garner some criticism for picking a novella by HP Lovecraft, using many of its narrative elements but providing a gaming experience that swaps the story’s dread, nihilism and alienation for playfulness and an uplifting sense of cooperation. The game itself is great, but the more familiar you are with the source material it borrows from, the more ill-fitting the experience might be.

With all those elements now more or less clearly laid out, what do we do with this knowledge? What does it help us with, exactly? I think whether you’re a designer, publisher, designated game guru or occasional guest at other people’s game night… being aware of these factors can let you help improve the overall game experience. It can be a consideration when picking an art style or a game’s setting to choose one that best conveys the tone of the experience, and eases players into the game. Knowing that these elements can change how quickly a game gets off the ground may make you reconsider not just the order in which you explain rules, but also the style your present them in. Finally recognising that our interaction prior to starting a game can carry over into the opening dynamics of play, may also change the game we pick at game night.

Ideally all these things allow us to play a game right the first time it hits the table, and not just after twenty attempts at finding the right group, time or angle.

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