Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Cardboard Conarium

For some time there had been a certain amusing acronym kicked around BoardGameGeek. Just Another Soulless Euro, or simply JASE, provided a way of expressing the irritation with a certain method of creating Eurogames, or a new and handy way to stick it to the “Eurosnoots”. Regardless of the term’s origin, its first purpose, and how JASE had been used by different gamers, it did pose an interesting question: what provides a board game with a soul? 

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
A soul is a pretty nebulous concept. There are many definitions and ideas when it comes to human souls, but in terms of inanimate objects, a soul only represents a certain set of almost undefinable features that make it stand out - and that makes us feel more attached to the said object. We often hear that a house, a car, even something as small as an old tape recorder might have a soul, and when we say it, we usually want to show that it is in some way special. Usually, special to us. 

Trying to pick apart the idea of a board game having a soul will thus be heavily biased by personal experiences. For that exact reason, I will always say that Puerto Rico is a game with a soul, as it was my first Eurogame - and my first step into a new world of gaming, a world hidden within the world I seemed to had already explored. Similarly, Through the Ages will (to me) remain a game richer and more beautiful than any other in the world, as it was my first step into tabletop civilization games - and a first spark of the type of love that never burns out. 

But both Puerto Rico and Through the Ages have one more very important thing going on for them: they were both innovative (apart from being solid games), which not only put them high on my personal list, but also made them games highly regarded by hobbyists around the world. The idea of an action picked by one player and then performed by others created almost a whole genre of games, and depicting the process of building a civilization through disassociated mechanisms (which, when coming together, create a surprisingly thematic experience) had proven beyond doubt how creative and diverse the board gaming hobby can really be.
Image Source: BoardGameGeek
With the above in mind, it seems that supplying a soul when creating a board game is a simple process - or, at least, simple if you are making a solid game with an innovative idea. And yet, it is not, and it cannot be, a precise science, as there are some games that seem to hit both of these marks, and yet people generally don’t seem to identify them as games with a soul. Dominion can probably serve as a great example here, being both innovative (so innovative in fact, that it did create a whole new genre of games), and more solid than many of its followers. 

Image Source: BoardGameGeek
Dominion had it all, and yet time has proven it to be a game many refer to as dry, which almost automatically makes a game soulless. So perhaps there is also a matter of theme to consider, an atmosphere created by the game’s elements, making it stand out, sometimes even placating the more critical gamers ready to condemn a game for its mechanical deficiencies. I believe there are many deckbuilders not quite as solid as Dominion, or at least not as versatile, which are still perceived as a bit more memorable, a bit more engaging (on a more abstract level), a bit more… soul-full? 

As I said in the beginning, a soul of a game is often a matter of personal preference, as much as it is a combination of more tangible factors. Our own Progress: Evolution of Technology and Versailles always seemed to me - and to many people from my gaming group - games with souls. And at the same time they were praised as mechanically sound but ultimately deemed soulless by many of those who I’ve played them with. 

Thus, it seems that there is no recipe, not even a final definition of a board game soul we could all use. But at least there are some definitions serviceable for personal use. So, what is yours?

Just to put a little plug (and date this note somewhat), we are running a contest now, with ten copies of Versailles - each supplied with this cute little depiction of King Louis. If you want to get your hands on one of them, just go here for details.

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