Modern boardgame design
Compare a modern boardgame like, say, Blood Rage to a classic like Risk. At first glance, they appear similar: both see you moving armies across a map to conquer territory, fight one another and, in the process, probably ruin a couple of real-life friendships. So what’s the point? Why play Blood Rage when you can get the same experience through your battered, ancient copy of Risk?
Well, the simple answer is that you can’t get the same experience; not really. Where Risk has players attempt world domination, Blood Rage sees players vie for both territory and the favour of Norse gods. To win at Risk, one must destroy all other players; to win at Blood Rage, one must simply win more battles than everyone else by the end of the game.
More importantly, however, Blood Rage is also just a better game; at least, as far as game design goes. Despite being made of the same physical components that classic boardgames have always been made of – paper, cardboard, dice, cheap plastic figurines – modern boardgames have somehow managed to make themselves better through nothing but refinement in their rules and design.
Consider how you resolve battles in Risk: you roll a bunch of dice that is determined by how many troops you have at a location, and if you roll higher than your opponent, you win. This leads to ridiculous situations where a single infantry unit on the map somehow manages to defeat an entire battalion of tanks, infantry and artillery. The very possibility of such huge swings makes luck far more important, which in turn diminishes the importance of strategy. What’s the point of carefully positioning all your units when your friend can simply, through no skill of her own, just “roll better” than you? No, I’m not bitter at all, why do you ask. This has never happened to me before. Never.
Let’s now look at how battle is resolved in Blood Rage. Rather than using dice, we use cards which, while still random, also gives its players a great deal more control over their outcome. What’s more, these cards are not just haphazardly drawn from the top of a deck, but are instead drafted by players at the start of each turn. This way, everyone kinda, sorta, knows what everyone else might be holding in their hands, leading to a situation which is infinitely more tense, thoughtful and exciting than “oh let’s roll dice and see who rolls better”.
Risk’s endgame condition of “complete world domination” also often leads to games that are way too long. As I said in my review some time ago, Risk is a game that packs half an hour of fun into two hours. Blood Rage, in contrast, never outstays its welcome. By tying the endgame condition to a timer (i.e. the game always ends after three rounds), designer Eric Lang is not only able to control the length of each game, but also add a layer of strategic and dramatic tension by ensuring that all players know exactly when the game will end.
The amazing thing about boardgame design is that it is not reliant on technology. It does not really matter that Blood Rage has prettier board art, has better sculpted figurines, or that it uses fancy snap-on bases for its figurines. In fact, if you removed all that stuff, Blood Rage would still be an objectively better game, and one that could have just as easily been made and produced back in 1959, back when Risk was first published.
Which leads us to an interesting question: why wasn’t it?
The success of modern boardgames are built upon the mistakes - or, if you prefer, the trials and errors - of earlier games. We learnt what made a game fun by iterating upon the designs of older games, which in turn lead to us making incrementally better games over time. As it is in science, programming and all other disciplines, it is because modern boardgame designers are standing upon the shoulders of giants that they are able to see so far.
This is article one of two and will be continued later.