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Games vs Story Generation Devices

August 10th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Board Games

We had the Civic Holiday meetup on the past Saturday, and it was, as usual, a good group. A healthy dose of regulars and newcomers, and Julian won Risk Legacy again, so he is exiled, etc. Again, thanks to Tequila Bookworm for hosting us – and for 8 hours this time, too.

The first game on the docket was Last Night on Earth, a game we’d been introduced to in an earlier session, but this time we had the full six people to play it and Dave, the game’s owner, served as a referee of sorts to resolve rules issues.

If you haven’t played Last Night on Earth, it’s a zombie game – one of the dozens that clutter the Ameritrash market like Battle of Bulge games at the height of wargaming success. In a full game, you have four people playing ‘heroes’ and two people playing the zombies. There are multiple scenarios, all with turn limits, and both sides roll dice and draw cards to determine what actions they can take when.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t get into the game a little. I was the only adult with three other teenage heroes, and my power (drawing an extra card and then choosing which to discard) was the most useful. This made me a target, yes. But it also gave me the illusion of something to do.

Because, as much as Last Night on Earth is about survival, it is more about luck. This is a game that lives and dies on the die rolls. You roll dice to move, you roll dice to see if your attacks work, you roll dice to see if your weapon breaks or if you can escape certain card generated situations.

Now, clearly, a bad decision at any point can cost you the game. But, given the team nature of the game, these have to be bad decisions that everyone agrees on and co-operates with. The only really bad decisions you can make are related to how you group your heroes for a given mission. In truth, Last Night on Earth is a choose your own adventure story but with rolling the bones to see which page you turn to.

This does not mean you cannot get good stories out of them.

I talk a lot on this blog about how a great strategy game is one of the most powerful interactive narrative inspirations available today. Everyone who plays Mass Effect sees the same stuff 95% of the time, but every Civilization game has the potential for something original and epic. Fighting off a horde of Zerg in Starcraft is qualitatively different from fighting off a horde of attackers in Gears of War – one is purely skill and guts, and one is plot driven. Note, I am not saying that one form is superior to the other – simply that giving players the chance to write their own new stories, freed from the author’s pen, is a marvelous thing that strategy games provide.

Ideally, a good board game should provide that, too. But then you throw in the dice roll. And not just any dice roll – the obvious dice roll, where everyone can see the results and curse the fates.

I am not sure who coined the term “story generation device” but I am sure I first heard it from the mouth of Bruce Geryk when we talked about Memoir ’44. Like zombies, World War II is a familiar theme and readily accessible to any player. And, like Last Night on Earth, for something to be a clear strategic error, the sort of thing you note as ?? in chess, it has to be fairly obvious to pretty much everyone independent of subsequent die rolls.

Still, How the Fates Ruined My Life is a tale as old as time. For the Greeks, Fates meant inevitability and destiny and I hear this in the tones of some board gamers as well – that the dice were cursed or turned against the roller or, in many cases, the randomness of the result is retconned into a winning/losing strategy. As if any D6 roll is more important to the laws of physics than any other.

The result are games like Last Night on Earth which can serve as decent story building exercises as you play, or when you play again and want to refer to a previous instance, but aren’t very fulfilling when you want to talk about choices or options. True, randomness is important in most games, both video and board. Deck building games rely on not knowing what is next turned up, wargames rely on the roll of many dice over dozens of situations (mitigating randomness somewhat) and if it’s a game with a randomly created map then you might be hosed before you start.

There was a discussion on a recent podcast about the distinction between a Fun game and Good game, and I sometimes think that Fun often comes down to the whole story generating thing. If you are having fun playing something or interacting with other people then the stories will come easy. You are lost in the moment or in the flow.

But a lot of fun is sometimes empty calories. One night stands, cheap bourbon, episodes of Benson…things that leave you with little else besides the endorphine hit.

Let’s be clear — not every game has to be edifying or interesting or challenging. I am perfectly happy playing my roguelikes knowing that there is a 1 in 1000 chance that I will get dragon armour on level 2, and a corresponding likelihood to be murdered by a steam dragon. Unfairness and bad rolls are something we deal with as gamers.

But Last Night on Earth feels like some very empty calories. With good people (as I was) and with good beer (as I was) it can be an interesting experience. But not nearly as fulfilling as Risk Legacy and realizing that I can save this battle if I spend my scar now instead of later, or as interesting as a late game decision in Ticket to Ride to draw Route Cards in the hope to close the point gap. Yes, there is randomness in each of these, but the choices are also starker and tougher. The decision to move or to search in Last Night on Earth is almost entirely determined by the scenario that is chosen and how many hit points you have left.

In short, every moment in Last Night on Earth, just like almost every moment in Memoir ’44, is divorced from real tension because so much is out of your control, and out of the control of your mindless opponents. It’s a decent game to build a tale with (I could tell you about how my drifter took a risk to save the high school kids, but their dice rolls got them out of danger after he exposed himself, for example) but it pleases momentarily and then fades until we are reminded of it again. Any lessons you learn are game specific, unless you learn that redneck towns still have sexy nurse uniforms.

I’m not saying I would never play it again. I’m not saying it’s a bad experience. I am saying that, mechanics wise, even the most stylish Ameritrash game like Last Night on Earth isn’t that far removed from Sorry! or other Milton Bradley stuff; the real difference is the narrative tools imposed upon it.


4 Comments so far ↓

  • Wes

    Speaking as one of the two zombie players, I have to concur w.r.t. the lack of control. I guess it’s thematically appropriate that I felt like all I was doing was shambling after the humans and trying to engage them in combat, but it was also a rather tedious experience, I’m sorry to say. You could have easily replaced me with a built-in AI mechanic and it would have been just as interesting for you, I’d wager.

  • ShadowTiger

    I think that with board games that don’t lend themselves to the cold and calculating gameplay style, its important to add your own personality into the game.

    This means, improv, role playing, making the game an excuse to be silly and talk with other people. If you focus to much winning or losing a game that is ultimately just a series of die rolls, then theres not too much pleasure to be had.

  • CJ L

    I think that a quick and dirty rule of how good a game is as a story-telling device is how much fun can be wrung from it in a stalemate or losing situation. To go back to your example of Gears of War (a series I am a fan of mechanically but not aesthetically) there is next to zero potential for having a solid player-created narrative in the single player. Incidentally, there is very little entertaining about losing in single player, nothing the player gains from the experience other than learning the guys coming up have grenades or maybe if you duck you’ll go another 20 seconds before your head splits apart like a meat-filled cantaloupe. On the multiplayer side of the game, it opens up because losing can be a memorable experience.
    “I ran down this tunnel and there were guys with flamethrowers who promptly murdered me. After twenty seconds of load time I ran back to the tunnel and hung out at the convenient row of waist-high sandbags at the entrance and took out the flamethrowers as they turned the corner” versus “Despite the fact that I had not so much landed a single shot the entire match, I was somehow the last person alive on my team. Time was ticking down and I really had no idea what to do because I am terrible at this game, and when I finally saw one of my opponents I had just enough time to miss with a wild burst from my gun and ready a grenade before one of his teammates winged me with a shotgun and sent me down. Wanting to gloat, he ran over to finish me off with a stomp from his giant Warhammer boot, never realizing that I was holding onto a grenade and was able to put a dent in their score as I pulled the pin, taking myself and three of my tormentors out in one press of a button.” Which one of these is something approaching what other people might want to hear about what you did with your evening? And which one was more primally satisfying for the player?

  • Jonathan Ray

    I’m new on the NH Seacoast and I feel like that’s where you guys are, am I right?