Issue 23: Board games and narratives

Both Pandemic Legacy: Season Zero and Sleeping Gods provide a vantage into how games bring players into narratives, and it highlights areas where games might move in the future.

Hello! It's been a little bit since I appeared in your inbox after I took a little hiatus last week, but here I am, ready to talk board games with you once again. You'll also note this came in on a different day of the week.

I think that's a change here to stay, but I'm curious: What do you think? Is Wednesday a good day to get a newsletter about board games?

We haven't stopped playing games, though if I'm not talking about playing games, am I really playing games? (Yes. The answer is yes.) We're knee-deep in a campaign of Pandemic Legacy: Season Zero, which has been really compelling. I so want to talk about it more — but I also think it's important to respect the sanctity of spoilers.

We've also been playing Magic: the Gathering lately, and I'll talk about that below, too. But it's been a fun pandemic activity, and I sort of wish I'd jumped back in last March when things started shutting down.

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So this will be a bit of an interesting one, as I really am not interested in spoiling the game for anyone — but we've been playing Pandemic Legacy: Season Zero lately and it's given me a lot of thoughts on how we consume and play games in the modern era. But, like I said, no spoilers are going to be found here.

Games with a narrative structure are hard to come by. Often, you'll find a narrative of some sort in games — theme and setting interplay to create a narrative, and there are even plenty of dry Euro games that fit the bill. There are ups and downs, unexpected happenings, twists and turns — all things that can make a really compelling narrative, even if the actual text is less clear-cut.

Storytelling games engage narrative from a different perspective, and they often struggle to give players the freedom to make meaningful narrative decisions. Pandemic Legacy solves this by giving players a story problem to solve, allowing them to participate in a small part of the narrative as it unfolds around them.

Even in legacy games, the highs and lows of storytelling being present in games demands an element of choice that is really difficult to come by. Pandemic Legacy: Season One had very few elements of that, for example, despite being a phenomenal game that told a great story. Pandemic Legacy: Season Two engages storytelling in a more involved way, and players have to pay attention to story to really succeed. Season Zero takes that approach and iterates nicely on it: Now, not only must you pay attention to the game's story to be successful, but your choices translate into actual changes in the gameplay — more than just one city being difficult.

Still, you're not crafting the story. That remains a feature you see in roleplaying games and video games, where player choice makes substantive differences in the way the game is played. Games like Pandemic Legacy invite you into the narrative and offer unique excitement, but you're still being guided along a path, however broad it may be.

The work Ryan Laukat is doing, particularly his latest effort, Sleeping Gods, brings some of this to mind, as well. The game plays almost as an open-world exploration game, and while I still haven't played much of it, the idea that when you play a campaign, you carve your own path — seeing along the way just a percentage of what the game has to offer — is a really interesting, compelling one. I’m curious how this will ripple out to other games, if it does at all. There’s a lot of work that goes into writing a story, after all.

The rise of legacy games over the last five or so years heralded a rise of storytelling and establishing an explicit narrative structure. Season Zero appears to be the last game in the series, and I think that's just about right. (I'd love more, though. If Matt Leacock stumbles on this for some unknown reason, I want him to know that I will buy another Pandemic Legacy game in a heartbeat. Thanks.) Zero has been outstanding, and it's making me wonder what the next big step forward for the industry will be. What amazing designs will we see in five years that are being put to physical form today?

Right now, it feels a bit like we'll see more of the same, and I think there's room for more innovation beyond nicer components, more streamlined rules, more complicated mechanisms, and the like. I'm ready for the next big thing.

Like I said in the introduction, we've also been playing quite a bit of Magic: the Gathering lately, which is something I did a lot in high school (and some in college) but left for quite a bit of time. I've thought a lot about how I wish I had better games to play in high school (I played hours and hours of Risk, which I think could have been better spent with other games,) but I rarely have thought about how Magic is a compelling game in its own right. It's mechanically rich, gives players a wide berth for creativity in play and construction, and engages parts of my gaming brain other games only brush against.

I don't think I'll be jumping into competitive play there, but as a casual game, it's been really compelling. Games — at least games that aren't RPGs — that engage long-term creative thinking are really hard to come by, and the deck-building aspect of Magic has been something I've really enjoyed for that reason.

I hope this newsletter finds you well. I don't know if I'll be doing much board gaming this weekend, as we'll be getting our second dose of the vaccine on Friday — but that could make for a great opportunity to go through some of the many board game apps I have on my phone. I'll talk about my favorites I've played next week.


Don't Eat the Meeples is a free board games newsletter by Matt Montgomery typically written and sent weekly.