Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Road to Adventure

When asked about adventure games, it’s quite easy to give a long list of examples: from the grandfatherly figure of classic Talisman, through its almost carbon copies like Prophecy or the more recent Relic, to progressively more complicated designs like Runebound or A Touch of Evil, the now out of print World of Warcraft: The Board Game and the legendary rules behemoth known as Magic Realm. But what is it exactly that makes them adventure games?

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According to Robert Harris, the designer of the original Talisman, the game was created as a substitute for Dungeons & Dragons. What might be hard to believe to modern gamers, accustomed to slim designs which take an hour to set up, play and break down to neatly put back into the box, Harris wanted to make a game that would create an RPG-like experience in a shorter time and a more manageable form (one of the key points of this simplification being ejecting the time consuming role of the Dungeon Master).

With that in mind, it's rather obvious why the tropes and decorations for Talisman were ported directly from classic fantasy: it was, after all, a cornerstone of the game that started the whole role-playing genre, in turn spawning numerous board games and then MMOs, the majority of which still favour visiting worlds inhabited by warriors, wizards and dragons over any other. 

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that games are often categorized using their settings, with ones featuring characters, enemies and events known from fantasy literature and movies often falling into the Adventure genre (unless very blatantly being something else).There are admittedly some small deviations, but even some of those science-fiction worlds (like the universes of Star Wars or Warhammer 40.000 used as a setting for Relic) have in fact little to do with science, with their defining stories being much closer to heroic epics than the writings of sir Arthur C. Clarke.

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A fantasy theme, however, does not an adventure game make. The dwarves, axes and quests do not obscure the fact that Caverna is a Eurogame through and through. The theme of travelling around mythical ancient Greece in Venture Forth is nothing more than a theme, with the player able to best optimize their movement being the winner every time. The most important experience of playing Magic: The Gathering is not that of coming into contact with mythical heroes and creatures the decks are so ripe with – it’s about coming into contact with your opponent and crushing them. Playing any of those games is rarely an adventure - it's an optimization task or a duel.

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Now, the actual experience of having an adventure is sometimes a difficult one to create. Tabletop role-playing games do the best job here, using the best tool available: the human mind. The imagination of a Dungeon Master creates worlds, characters and surprising twists, exciting the players, and allowing the game world to react unexpetedly to their actions. But how can a board game ever substitute the unpredictability and creativity of a live dungeon master? That is and was simple since 1983 - just use a die or a stack of cards.

After looking at all the games I played, if I were to point to one feature that is prevalent to any game that “feels like an adventure”, I’d probably go with randomness. It is the randomness that allows the game to be different every time. It is the roll of a die that in the end decides of success or failure. It's the flipped card that puts a peril, a stranger or a fantastical event on the road that makes or breaks a hero. Now, am I saying that it is enough to just make your game random, to make it feel like sharing an adventure with a bunch of friends? 

No. But that is something I will have to leave for next week.

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