Inspired by a recent, and very brief, discussion on Twitter (nod to Kathleen Mercury and Paul Grogan), I decided to investigate the age old question of what makes a role-playing game a role-playing game. Now, let me say that this article is by no means exhaustive, and I am merely trying to touch on the main points only. Also, and this is sort of a spoiler, it turns out that the matter is unlikely to be settled any time soon, and different people have different views of what is a "true" role-playing game and what isn't, or what game is not a role-playing game, but has role-playing elements. Ultimately, of course, it doesn't matter whether a game is, or is not, a role-playing game, as long as you enjoy playing it and have fun with others or on your own. So bearing all of this in mind, let's start.
Tabletop games tend to encourage people to come together and enjoy some time together. Even solo games are often enjoyed in company with other solo players, and then of course you have a number of multiplayer solitaire games, where people play the same game at the same time, but basically everyone does their own thing. There are many way of people playing games together, so let me look at each one briefly in turn.
A lot of games now come with an option to play against an artifical oponent - often called an AI, or automa. Don't worry though, the AI won't try to take over the world and enslave humanity. Instead an automa is there to offer the option of an additional player. In fact, some games allow you to add multiple automa, if you so wish. Artificial oponents come in many flavours and often provide different levels of difficulty, allowing you to choose how tough you want your new opponent to be.
In my view, the tabletop games community is generally a friendly, welcoming group of people. We seem to know that we are all human beings, and each of us has different skills, experiences, backgrounds, challenges and attitudes. We do our best to ignore stereotypes and prejudices and try to allow anyone join in the fun of escaping to another world, solving difficult puzzles or do whatever constitutes playing a game. Of course, our community isn't perfect, but I would say the trend is in the right direction. The same is true for modern games, and many designers and publishers are clearly doing what they can to allow more people to join in the fun. There is still more work to be done of course, but again the trend seems to be in the right direction.
The tabletop games industry has been booming for some years now. Back in September 2016, the The Guardian website describes how the Thirsty Meeples cafe in Oxford taps into "he rise and rise of tabletop gaming" (1). In January 2017, the New Statesman website explains "ow board games became a billion-dollar business" (2), and in December 2017 the Financial Review website describes how "the golden age of board games" (3) allows the Draughts game cafe in London to benefit from the popularity of boardgames and how the industry grew over time. Even as recently as April 2018, an article on the Bloomberg website (4) says that board game nights are the latest way to network. So the boom clearly continues, and it has made me wonder if small players, be they game publishers, designers or developers, rules writers, content creators, game cafe owners or games group or exhibiton organizers, still have a role in the industry.
Imperfect information games have been around for a long time. Games like Cluedo or Guess Who? are examples that most people will know and have probably played. In these games you all have the same goal, but everyone has a different set of information, and nobody has the full picture. These type of games create an interesting puzzle for players who try to win without revealing too much information to their opponents. It is often impossible to know which of the possible actions is the best one, and whether it will give others an advantage. A whole branch of game theory is dedicated to solving imperfect information games, but in this blog post I want to describe a couple of games that have built on the basic premise of these type of games and developed it further.
Prompted by my recent review of Lincoln by PSC Games and Worthington Games, I wanted to discuss the topic of war as a theme in modern tabletop games. Depending on whether a game uses a real historic event as its backdrop, or creates a much more abstract scenario, people will react differently. Tackling the American Civil War, as Lincoln does, is very different to using a sci-fi setting with space ships. Many people simply don't feel comfortable with games set in a dark time of history, while others don't mind if the game recognizes what has happened and respects the terrible nature of the events from the past.
Inspired by Tweets following the recent Essen Spiel 2018 by a fair few people, I thought I write about one of the reasons I love the tabletop games industry: wanting to play a game whenever, wherever. In fact, many of us try and see a game in everyday activities. It is usually not about being competitive, but much more about being playful, having imagination and sharing an experience with other people - or it can be about beating your own best score, whether this is in a competitive, co-operative or solo game.
In many modern tabletop games there is a certain amount of player interaction. The term sounds quite positive. After all, playing games with others is often about interaction and the social aspect. However, the term is actually referring to situations where one player takes an action that directly affects another player. If the effect is negative it is called "take that", and if it is positive it is called "have this". Different players like different amounts or different types of player interaction. You can be a care bear or a warmonger. So let's look at what these different types are and how they affect gameplay.
Sandbox, or open world, games have been around in the tabletop games industry for a very long time. After all, that is exactly what role play games are all about. Every player pits their imagination and wits against the games master's plans. Nothing is impossible, within the rules of the environment of course, and every decision has consequences. However, when it comes to creating a convincing sandbox environment without using a games master you quickly reach limitations. Yet, there are a number of recent releases that create the illusion of a completely open world really well and in an elegant fashion.