Two years ago I left a job at Rock, Paper, Shotgun to start a board game site. But that's not the strange part. What's odd is that I've never looked back. I'm getting more out of table games these days than video games, and the biggest reason is that somewhere along the line, video games became obsessed with winning, and it’s killing them.
Forget achievements. Do you ever think about how many bruises you’ve collected, as a video gamer? Every evening you went online and got stomped by strangers. Every towering boss that kicked in your teeth. Every bad call you wincingly made, every time you had your entertainment taken away for not being good enough. You’re a failure! How about that?
I remember a colleague taking a 5 minute break, away from the jittery job of reviewing Battlefield 2. “It’s fun when you win,” he said, exhausted. “And boring when you lose. Haven’t we moved past that yet?”
No, we haven’t. For a medium that’s evolved from play, video games have an overwhelmingly binary view of success and failure, one so crippling that if we settle into a single player game and make no progress, or lose every multiplayer match in one night, our lives will have been worsened. And we never ask why games are like this. After all, how else could it be?
For a medium that’s evolved from play, video games have an overwhelmingly binary view of success and failure.
Board games have the answer. They speak it so noisily that it’s unbelievable it hasn’t penetrated the Video Games Bunker, but there’s a whole world of analog games that are dedicated to ensuring people simply have fun, all the time.
Let me give you just three examples, and let’s start with Twilight Imperium.
Everyone reading this will know how space strategy games work. They’re interstellar knife fights where everyone is working unfathomably hard to take everything away from everyone else; to inflict the worst possible time on everyone else.
Now, let’s look at Twilight Imperium. A space strategy board game with the same pattern of claiming star systems, researching technology and engaging in wars, but where units simply aren’t disposable. Wars in Twilight Imperium are dread things. Which means players simply... talk to one another. The furious struggle of video games is replaced with more sedate maneuvering and politics. Better yet, politics where players inevitably end up roleplaying their race, because the prospect of an apocalyptic computer virus negotiating with space turtles is too entertaining not to do.
The end result is a strategy game that isn’t about chasing victory, and where losing isn’t painful. Video games often deign to give you a happy victory. Like many board games, Twilight Imperium wants to give you moments, and stories, and that doesn’t just give your matches a better chance of being fun. It makes all of gaming more accessible.
Next, let’s look at Agricola. A game of being a 17th century German farmer. I know! Calm down.
But Agricola holds a dark secret. It belongs to the clandestine sect of “Eurogames,” which are a field of board games that let players compete, without anything as unimaginative as letting you actually fight.
So, Agricola is a game where the best farm wins. You’ll want vegetables, and animals, and a family, which means you’ll be scratching together fields, fences and home improvement, and for that you’ll be scrounging peat, wood, clay and still more depressing basics. It’s like a hungover mathematics professor designed Harvest Moon.
Where it gets interesting is that you get all these things from a central board. You can dispatch any family member you like to a space that gets you a certain thing, but where you go? Nobody else can go. And that’s your game. Everyone always gets something in Agricola. Everybody’s always winning, always building, which is satisfying. At the same time, everyone is always losing, feeding your family is always a terrifying prospect, and you all bond over this shared struggle. At the end, someone will have built the best farm, but here’s the thing about eurogames, their victory in the world of play: Nobody will care.
Which brings us to party games. If Twilight Imperium shows how the pressure of competition can be eased, and Agricola shows how it can be avoided entirely, Party Games show how ferocious competition can be kept, but players can be rendered immune to that damage. Let’s look at Bang!.
Bang! is a team-based, Wild West shootout. On your turn you can shoot a player sitting next to you, upgrade your weapon, drink whiskey for health, or deploy any one of dozens of surprises hidden in the game’s deck of cards.
Roles are dealt in secret. One player reveals himself as the sheriff. Hidden around the table are the outlaws who want to kill him, the deputies who want to keep him alive, and the renegade who’s doomed. The renegade has to be the last man standing with the sheriff, and then has to kill him, and so muddies the waters to the point that people inevitably end up killing their own teammates.
Bang! is ferociously competitive, AND it features player elimination, and yet it’s incredibly easy going because it’s funny, and it heavily employs random chance, that dirty second skin that competitive video games tore off long ago. Reasons randomness isn’t actually a bad thing? Not only does it encourage unusual play states and reward the ability to adapt (rather than plan), but it also removes the pressure to win, the sting of losing.
Not only does it encourage unusual play states and reward the ability to adapt (rather than plan), but it also removes the pressure to win, the sting of losing.
None of which is to say that strict competition doesn’t have its place. But I can’t help but feel games are more exciting every single time they peek outside of it. I remember being thrilled by every single fight in the Shenmue series, because once in a while the game would continue if you lost a fight. That fight would just become a permanent failure in Ryo Hazuki’s story. And wasn’t the best chapter in the Mass Effect series the suicide mission, where characters you’d come to love could be taken away, forever?
I want you to do something. I want you to buy Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll’s The Yawhg. Out just last week, it's an excellent storytelling video game about preparing for a terrible tragedy, for anywhere from one to four players. See how its stories become that much more tender for being tinted with failure? See how boring winning is?
I have a feeling video games are only working with half a palette. Losing will set us free.
Quintin Smith is a games columnist able to identify different board game manufacturers by their scent. He is not proud of this. He's part of a team working to make a home for play in Shut Up & Sit Down, and @quinns108 on Twitter.