The other day I had the opportunity to be taught some new games. As is so often the case, the explanation began with the unassuming phrase, that nevertheless made me stop and wonder. „This game is about…“
Every rules explanation or introduction begins with a phrase like that. It’s the necessary framing so the rules can make sense. So I wondered who gets to decide the framing of a set of rules. A quick glance at the rulebook or the game‘s box generally offers its own framing. This game is about being a daring adventurer in a dangerous fantasy world. Maybe it‘s about making loads of money as an industrialist. Or maybe it‘s about leading a civilization towards world domination.
But that‘s really just the game‘s setting. It‘s a filter we use to make play more fun, but it‘s not what the game is about at its core. A game is about play, i.e. what players actually do. But if we only look at the rules, we‘ll soon notice how similar they all are. There‘s a goal you‘re supposed to reach. The rules present you with a number of things to do, in order to overcome the obstacles standing in your way.
So if the rules are the ones to tell us what a game is about, the answer is always the same: playing games is about winning. Either against other players or the game itself. But experience shows, that this answer is also incomplete. If only the game‘s goal matters, then no game can be said to have any relevance to its theme. Puerto Rico would be just as controversial as Jenga. The difference between a game like Secret Hitler and Azul would be merely mechanical. The historical background of war games and conflict simulation games would be mere coloring. There would be literally no point to them.
But games resist such a simple reductionist view. They‘re not about setting or mechanisms alone. You have to merge the two in order to truthfully answer what a game is about. This isn’t done by the people you’d necessarily expect it from. Because a designer doesn’t get to choose what their game ends up being about. Once the rules are set, their authority over the game’s meaning evaporates. Even additional clarifications in the rulebook or a blog, do not lend them power over how theme and mechanics come together to create the actual game and how it’s played.
It‘s the gaming group itself, that definitively answers the question of what a game is about. We determine it as we try to grasp the game, mentally sort through its mechanics and turn our attention towards the things we care about. The path to victory points, the feel of new mechanisms or even the exotic setting the game presents us with. Games become about the things we care about in them. Our decisions reveal our convictions about games.
In comparison, the designer’s work consists of presenting us with a range of elements to choose from. What is included in this selection, though, can be just as revealing as the things that are not. A small detail we would do well to keep in mind when we talk about the artistic merit of a game.