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.
Rise of Tribes by Breaking Games looks like your normal area control game with the usual random terrain made out of hexagonal tiles. The game is set in ancient, prehistoric times, and you move your tribe members around the terrain, collect resources, craft tools to upgrade your tribe's abilities and generally do things that you will have seen before in other games. However, look closer and you will see that there are at least two interesting mechanisms in this game, which make it stand head and shoulders above the rest.
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.
Card games come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, from the traditional games played for centuries throughout Europe to the modern card collecting, card drafting and deck building games. It is the modern deck building games that I want to focus on in this review. In Mystic Vale by Alderac Entertainment Group you don't just build your deck in the traditional sense, where you simple buy new cards to improve what you have. Instead you have a fixed deck where every card can be added to, meaning that you literally customize every card. That creates a very interesting mechanism not seen in other games.
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.
Haspelknecht: The Story of Early Coal Mining, to give it its full title, is a kind of action selection game by Quined Games set in the Ruhr region of Germany. The game is set at a time when the area was still covered by forests and coal was first discovered close to the surface. During the game your task is to dig up that coal until its depleted and you have to start digging deep pits to get to this precious resource. The great mechanism in this game is the action selection element, where you draw all tokens of one colour from one of a number of common pools at the start of each round. These tokens are then used to activate your workforce and develop new technologies. It sounds simple, but it creates a really complex, interesting game with lots of options and very few player interaction.
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.
I had the pleasure of trying the prototype PnP version of Chai by Deep Aqua Games, which is due to launch on Kickstarter on 4 December, so keep an eye out for it. The aim of the game is to collect resources, in this case flavours and additives, to fulfil the outstanding tea orders for customers, which give you points. It's the classic mechanism of completing contracts or quests, like in so many other games. However, the twist is how you collect your resources from the market, which creates a really interesting puzzle which forces you to think ahead and work out what you need versus what other players may need.
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 "[t]he rise and rise of tabletop gaming" (1). In January 2017, the New Statesman website explains "[h]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.