Arguments and framing in boardgames

In another thread about books, I talked a bit about the arguments made by books, and art in general, but my choice of phrasing seemed to lead to some confusion. The conversation also got put down as “probably not of interest” to anyone else, but I disagree. I think the topic is a fascinating one, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Why? Well, to take one example, someone just linked me an essay by Dan Thurot on the topic. In addition to being an interesting read, the essay is centred around one of my favourite games, and also handily clarifies what I meant by “arguments”, particularly in the form of “framing”.

Of course, starting a new thread on the topic has the advantage that if no-one else is interested, the thread can quietly sink into oblivion, instead of derailing a popular topic!


This is interesting, relevant, and important, so yeah. I’m here for it!

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Bookmarked for lunchtime reading :+1:

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105 posts were split to a new topic: What Is Art!? (Baby Don’t Hurt Me…)

I must be reading something else, I can’t see anywhere here where he said every work of art has anything at all?

It all just seems like a lot of words that don’t talk about the topic at all.

Back on topic however, and the link in the top post makes interesting reading. It’s interesting how, what look like quite subtle nuances taken in isolation, go towards changing the overall feel of something entirely. Thanks for the link.

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Yes, I found his take on some of the differences between the two editions to be very interesting.

I don’t particularly want to get too involved here, but the full context is that this thread seems to have been made more or less explicitly to continue a discussion that was started in a different thread, and closed down by moderators (See “In another thread about books” in the first post).

So it seems not completely unreasonable for @whswhs to hark back to that original discussion. Whether it’s worth pursuing is another matter.

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This discussion reminded me of a recent essay by the designer of Rap Godz reflecting on some play tester feedback he received during the design process.

Two aspects of the game that some play testers weren’t sure about involved random dice rolls for determining the outcome of one action and the lack of catch up mechanics on certain tracks that provide benefits to the first player to pass various markers. He ultimately decided not to make any changes to either of those as he felt the concerns were coming from a place of experience with games designed largely by white men or emulating those design standards. He was specifically designing a game meant to represent an element of Black American culture and outside forces preventing your success no matter how hard you worked for it or some people starting from a place of privilege and others having very little chance to catch up to that and having to find ways to work around it are the reality of Black American life.

He could have changed those mechanics and kept the same theme to his game, but it would have undermined one of the arguments he was making with his game on the importance of a diversity of voices in our hobby.


Um… I liked the article. It was good.


But also these talks about art have strayed off the path of this topic about as bad as that time I drove a quad.

Edit: new thread perhaps?

I’m paraphrasing a half-remembered article I read a long time ago, but the cultural shifts in emphasis of luck and skill in games is an interesting one.

IIRC, the idea was that if an ancient game were skill-based, it was probably more of a test of the quality of your education than skill, and therefore helped maintain the status quo, rather than being an egalitarian equaliser. If an ancient game were luck-based, it was probably seen as a test of who was favoured by god/gods, so the “right” person would win. I just looked up snakes and ladders and was interested to learn it was an Indian game, rooted in Indian morality lessons emphasising destiny, vices, and virtues, and used to have more snakes than ladders (the path of good is the harder one). Victorian England changed the vices and virtues emphasised, and made the number of snakes equal to the number of ladders (for every sin there is a chance at redemption), before it became the morality-free kids game we know today.

So anyway, even simple Victorian games usually explicitly presented morality lessons (arguments), and were framed in the context of the favoured player being the one who deserved to win because they were the most moral!

While we have largely moved away from such framing these days - luck is just luck, and skill is just skill - the move away from games as “destiny”, whether from godly favour or social hierarchy, towards games as “competition” seems to be a relatively recent trend. Incidentally, and I’m typing as I realise this so the idea is not fully developed yet, I can see the rise of cooperative games as an even more recent push back towards games as fate-driven systems that deliver outcomes, linking back to the reasons people used to play snakes-and-ladders… Anyway, even now, there is still a component of inequality in most games. The players who have had the time and money to gain expertise in a variety of games are usually positioned to win against players who haven’t. Still, this didn’t stop me getting trounced at chess by off-duty tuk-tuk drivers at 3 am in the Philippines!*

* It did, however, help me beat a Vietnamese man at Xiangqi, a game I had only recently learned, which turned out to be really awkward since I was staying the night in the concrete cubicle he shared with 2 other guys, who appeared to be teasing him mercilessly (they had both beaten me before he wanted a turn).

I’ve lost the plot now. Travel anecdotes are not where this post was supposed to go. Anyway, thanks for reading!


I think that this may be part of the reason why a lot of games intended for adults, and prior to the great boardgame revolution, are immensely complicated with lots of fiddly little special-case rules (Uckers, some of the card games in the SU&SD series): knowing how to play with a basic competence is an indicator that you have plenty of leisure time to learn the rules, knowing the rules of a certain group is an indicator of membership in that group, and being able to say “har har, you lose because you didn’t know this rule” is a form of dominance behaviour.

(Also, because it was the only game that was being played in a particular social milieu, and a game of pure skill can become something like Chess, where if you’re significantly better than me neither of us will actually enjoy the game.)

I don’t really think that games make statements, on the whole (Victorian Snakes and Ladders aside). For instance, I don’t think chess as a game really makes any claims about war.

I do think that the framing of games tells us a bit about the context in which they were developed. And nowadays game designers are becoming more reflective about that. Hence Cole Wehrle’s long essays about different approaches to history. However, I’ve played both versions of Pax Pamir, and it seems to me that most of the claims in the article linked at the start of this thread take a lot of swallowing. The main difference between the two versions is in the ease of reading of the rulebook and the mechanics of the end-game. I can’t honestly say I noticed a difference between ‘empires’ and ‘coalitions’, and the stuff about what happens when the empire leaves (called ‘purge’ in the first edition) is pretty similar too.

There is, though, (I’d claim) a general framing difference between American games and German games (if you’ll forgive the nomenclature), which can probably be traced at least in part to the outcome of the Second World War. That perhaps left Americans keener to simulate armed conflict, and the Germans keener to simulate economic conflict. I’m making an argument here, but I don’t think the games themselves make the argument.

I’d be interested to know why there are so few modern games that have the inbuilt teamwork of something like Bridge or Whist. I know I’d like to see more. Maybe it’s to do with a dominant cultural theme of individualism, but I suspect it’s more to do with practicalities and trends.


As distinct from purely cooperative games?

You talk of “hard to swallow claims”, but the games do reflect the designer’s stated intent. Everyone is free not to engage with the arguments presented, and I guess most people won’t, and that’s fine. Doesn’t mean the arguments don’t exist.

For team games, Innovation and Tash-Kalar are the first two that came to mind. I like both games a lot, and highly recommend them.

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Yes. I like team games, and I don’t generally like purely cooperative games. I generally prefer doubles tennis to singles, for instance.

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You’re right. The arguments exist, but (for me) they don’t really exist in the game. However, I accept that they are explicitly supposed to, according to the designer.

Thanks. We’ve never played Innovation as a team game, and clearly we’re missing out. I imagine I’d enjoy Tash-Kalar. I do enjoy Bridge, but the fact that it’s almost impossible to find the right four people probably shows the main reason why the format isn’t common.

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Well, to put it in Marxist terms, go reflects the Asiatic mode of production, chess reflects feudalism, but bridge reflects capitalism. And they have different modes of competition.

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Yes, but we have loads of capitalist games these days, and mostly they aren’t team games in the style of Bridge. I think there’s a gap in the market, but the market might know better.

It may be that it’s easier to set up team play when you have a group of people who play together and always play the same game, or when a single game has so much market penetration that everyone can be expected to know it.