USING SOCIAL MEDIA THINKING TO ADVANCE BOARD GAME MECHANICS
By Anna van Slee,
formerly Co-Founder, otherdoor entertainment
now Director of New Brands, Sideshow Collectibles
Five thousand years ago on a Saturday night in Egypt, a 32-year-old grandma probably eased her aching, linen-toga-swaddled behind into a well-worn wooden chair to play a board game with her grandkids. Today, I might play the very same game, but wearing blue jeans and sipping ice-cold beers, after a hard day’s work spent sitting in front of a computer.
People have been playing board games since Homo sapiens have had time to think about anything beyond surviving from one moment to the next. Board games are one of the earliest expressions of culture, along with language and art. And it’s no wonder why: games teach players about strategy. And whether we live in adjacent mud-brick huts or skyscraper apartments, the key to a successful existence in society is advantageously balancing risk and reward.
Like all forms of play, board game play lets young minds begin to comprehend these facts of the adult world in a fun and safe environment. Games also let adults such as myself take out-ofcharacter risks and experiment with new strategies – casting off stress in the process.
While these cathartic psychological foundations of board games have not changed, how humans process information and communicate with each other has changed quite a bit. In this article I’ll explore how social media has shaped human thought, and how those changes can be incorporated into board game mechanics to make the games themselves more relevant, intuitive and dynamic.
UI Straightens the Learning Curve
One of the biggest obstacles preventing people from getting into a board game is the directions. I recently sat down with my husband and a good friend to dig into Star Trek: Expeditions, but it took us 90 minutes of studying the rules before we could actually start to play.
Authors of board game directions could learn a lot from the intuitive interfaces utilized by social media. These interfaces are engineered to get the user using the media as quickly as possible. So too with board games: Players are there to PLAY. The first step to helping players do just that would be to forgo traditional print organizational elements such as the introduction and table of contents, and skip right to setup. Story introductions and flavor text are essential for player immersion, but those elements should be kept in-game rather than in the directions. Organizational elements, like chapters, are most relevant to the player after they have already jumped in to familiarize themselves with how to play.
Consider how social media, such as email, handles this: Whenever Gmail makes an update to its services, I’m given the option to click through a very visual step-by-step example of the new feature in use. If I choose to close that window without going through the tutorial, Gmail very helpfully points me to where I can access that demonstration or an index where I can quickly and easily look up any specific questions.
Pictures > Words
Social media relies heavily on images to communicate quickly and effectively. Everyone knows what a button with an illustration of a trash can means. People don’t just like pictures; they expect them. Incidentally, this is something that Expeditions (eventually) does rather well. After slogging through some intro copy, the directions provide full-page, full-color photographs showing how to set up the game board.
I have about 15 board game boxes currently stacked inside my living room coffee table. These games were all purchased within the last White Paper 2012 decade. I took them out and surveyed the number of pictures in each game’s directions: Only two games used images in their directions and only one (Expeditions) used those illustrations to help me set up the game.
Furthermore, only 5 out of the 15 games used imagery elsewhere – on the board and playing pieces themselves. The need for pictures extends beyond directions, too. People are accustomed to using visual markers to sort information. Special font treatments for headlines; color-coordinating set-up information; and using visual tags to mark and categorize indexed information are all intuitive ways social media organizes information that users take for granted, which can be utilized by board games for a more instinctive game play experience.
User vs. Player
But images are most invaluable to the goal of involving the user in the world of the game. Which raises the most fundamental question in the process of integrating social media thinking with a board game: What’s the difference between a user and a player? The answer is in how much control each has over their engagement. Users are utilizing the media as a tool to communicate something. Players are engaged in an invented world/premise/mission/story for a prescribed amount of time. Players are dictated a set of rules and they can only express themselves within that given set of parameters. The more opportunities players have to express themselves, the more they will enjoy themselves - and the more engaged they will be in the board game. There are a million different ways I can communicate with my friends via social media: I can post on their Facebook wall, send them a text, tag them in a photo, send them an email… Giving players the ability to select from a range of communication channels is as important as giving them more opportunities to express themselves.
One of my favorite aspects of the game Munchkin Zombies is the table talk. Players can openly barter and trade with other players, directly affecting the game.
A lot of games encourage table talk, but I have yet to see a board game take advantage of the myriad selective communication capabilities that people are used to via their social media. For example, how many other players can be communicated with at once; how long the message itself can be; and how quickly that message can get to the intended recipient. There’s some inherent fun waiting to be exploited in each of these aspects within the context of a board game. In board games like Settlers of Catan, which are set during primitive times, it would be a cool added challenge to limit the speed of communication – like sending communiqués to another specific player via a non-player character who moves at a fixed rate, like a carrier pigeon or a stagecoach.
The Cloak of Anonymity
If nothing else, social media has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that with anonymity, people are truly, brutally honest. People act differently when no one knows whom they are. Maybe this is a backlash against the very public nature of a social media identity (which we’ll get into shortly in the “Make it Personal” subsection). A comment-thread argument provides the best illustration of ruthless might versus right, and the perils of anonymity in public social place. Reddit is chock-full of examples of this. This is an interesting social media phenomenon that can be taken advantage of in board games.
For example, imagine if the game Clue added a layer to each turn in which the other players could vote anonymously on whether an “accident” befell the active player when they entered a room. It’s almost therapeutic to be able to “sabotage” a successful player without them knowing it. Indulging this urge is good for both players and game play.
Not all board games are turn-based, but many are. I can remember playing some epic Scrabble games with my family after Thanksgiving dinner.
The most memorable events perhaps being waiting 45 minutes for my cousin Jake to put down any word at all! The time between turns can be merciless. With social media, there is no down time. People can instant-message while composing emails. They can text while they listen to music. They can play a Facebook game while waiting for a web page to load. People are not used to waiting, or I should say, waiting unoccupied. Social-media-minded board games will build in mini-games that can be played between turns.
These “side missions” should be relevant to the main game. For instance, in Scrabble, it would be fun to anagram as many words as possible from your own tiles between turns. When the active player lays down their word, everyone must stop anagramming and whoever produced the most words can swap out their least valuable tile. Ancillary games should be finite and easier to play.
Make it Personal
Having and maintaining a social media identity means a lot of public opportunity to show off who you are. Profile photos, twitpics, avatars - people are used to and even anticipate the opportunity to represent themselves visually. Now think about the iconic game board playing piece: A faceless triangle with a ball on top.
Iconic, but totally without any personality that the player could call their own. Monopoly is a great example of this player desire: I’m sure any girl can recall the scramble to claim your playing piece at the start of a Monopoly game - who didn’t want that teeny metal Scottie dog? Oftentimes, game mechanics could be applied to any era or cast of characters. The more opportunities you give players to symbolically or literally align themselves with their in-game identity, the stronger their connection to the board game will be. I know the first thing that attracted me to Hero Clix was the ability to play as teeny models of some of my favorite comic book characters.
Risk and reward are the most basic building blocks of any game; so, too, in social media. Every time a social media user makes a Tweet or a Facebook status update, they are opening themselves up to feedback – either positive or negative or (maybe worst of all) no reaction.
Risk/reward is amplified in the digital space because it is so public – comment threads, leader boards, Facebook user badges, up-votes and down-votes, Dukes and Duchesses of check-ins, etc. The modern social media user expects prominent visual rewards to accompany their risks. Board games can give players even better rewards than social media, given that they operate in their universe.
Most board games count point totals on a 12-sided die. A more visually prominent point-tracker could really up the stakes, especially for a team-based game. I often play Cranium on teams with boys versus girls. It would be funny to have a meter to show which gender was winning. Beyond visual rewards, board games could reward winners with actual power over the rules of the game.
Social media also glorifies a recorded history of use. I’ve been tracking every single book I’ve read since 2008 with Goodreads. My family records the name of the winner and the date of the game played in the inside of the box lid of every board game we have. A formalized tradition like this lets players build a history and a connection over time to a board game, which is essentially a standalone experience.
Who Cares? Everyone! Forever.
Social media has not just affected the “millennial” generation – everyone from two-year-old babies to 90-year-old grandparents is interacting with social media technology. Social media is ubiquitous in human self-consciousness, and board games are a natural form of communication, arguably more universally accessible than language or art. I am a native English speaker with some elementary Spanish, but I am fluent in Scrabble, Boggle, Connect 4, Tic-Tac-Toe, Battleship, Jenga, Mastermind, several editions of Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, Nexus Ops, Axis and Allies… and on and on! I bet most people have a similar list. Perhaps if I met with my counterpart from 5,000 years ago, we might not be able to translate English to cuneiform, or appreciate the message in Picasso’s Guernica, but we could play tictac-toe together.
In this way, board games could be considered the first social media. And like any media channel, board games could do with the occasional update to stay relevant to their audience. However, there’s no such thing as a timeless social media, and there should be no such thing as a timeless board game, either. A common fear board game authors express is that incorporating new media into a game will make it appear “dated” very shortly thereafter. But is that really such a terrible thing? This happens to any board game regardless. Whether it’s media-related or simply the language or illustration style utilized in the game: Everything ages.
All that really happens to a thoughtfully created, fun board game is that its current version will become a “classic” edition (something the current generation of buyers can be nostalgic about in 15 years) and consumers will buy the newer version when it comes out. Multiple editions are a hallmark of success. And nothing gives a brand ‘cred like a “collectible” version.
I’m a frequent thrift store shopper, and I pick up Girl Talk Date Line whenever I see it. It’s a fantastic gift for my grammar school friends; a piece of my childhood and a piece of history. Maybe 5,000 years from now, a 32-year-old Martian colonist will muse about how an ancient like me played that Girl Talk, while she plays virtually with her best friend in mission control back on Earth.