This is the final installment of our survey of board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. Definitely pop back and give the previous chapters a read, we’ll be tying them all together here!
Feelings is a pretty tough subject (as it turns out), and I found myself quite a bit out of my depth. So I’ve roped in my friend Dr. Elliott Hedman to help us cross the finish line. Elliott is the founder and Chief Experience Designer for mPath, where he helps organizations understand and optimize their emotional experiences. Enjoy!
Games can illicit a full range of feelings in players — joy, challenge, competition, sadness, defeat, and on and on, just as with other entertainment media: movies, television shows, video games, immersive theater …a new thing I’m totally psyched on right now; More on that topic in another post.
Previously in the PX series, I’ve suggested that immersion creates a feeling of being in the situation presented by the board, rules, and situation. Given that our emotional state can color any situation we find ourselves in (think how a person can say the same exact thing to you on separate occasions — if they catch you in a good mood, you may take it in a positive light, but in a bad mood, you might take those same words as antagonistic), let’s take the abstraction of feelings and immersion one level higher, and look at how a board game experience can influence emotions, and then in turn, those emotions can influence that experience, creating a feedback cycle.
Elliott describes emotions as preparation for action, or anticipation. This drives players as they live out the moments of the game; do they want to take a crazy risk just for the chance of a big payoff on an unlikely die roll, like an adrenaline junkie; do they want to ‘take on the world’ of the other players either by taking the solo role during Fury of Dracula or Scotland Yard, or simply by antagonizing every player until you’ve got a big target on your back; do they put on an air of braggadocio and shit-talking, only to anxiously stop as they are within striking distance of victory, and fear their poker face won’t hide it? Consider the following situational anecdotes from a few games through that lens:
- I conspiratorially share with another player at the table during a 10 hour Twilight Imperium session (My first ever!) “I think I’m only two turns from winning”. He winks at me and smirks. On the very next turn, he nabs the ‘first player’ option, and wins on that turn, one ahead of my anticipated victory. I felt beaten, a tiny bit betrayed, and soooo close to winning, only to have it slip through my fingers. In retrospect, I thought back on how I’d watched him stoke every other player’s empire into conflict, then sat back and played us all, so I ultimately felt additional respect for my friend’s board game prowess. And for TI’s balance, for us to have played for so long, and yet end up so close in outcome.
- My trip to Origins Game Fair 2016 was my maiden voyage to the con. I made two friends at the Secret Cabal meetup, and the next day, we sat down to play XCOM — a game full of setbacks, stress, and high levels of decision fatigue. But it was a great bonding experience for us, and we wrapped with a great feeling of camaraderie. Next time we hang out, we’ll no doubt high-five and say “Hey you guys remember that time we got rekt by the alien invasion at Origins???”
Through Elliott’s research, he’s come to term this feeling ‘anxiety/arousal’ — similar to being on the edge of a swimming pool. But once you’ve done the action you were preparing for, that emotional experience no longer exists. Games take different approaches to building this feeling, but the most effective way is to have short periods of building to high intensity, followed by short periods of cool-down. XCOM uses time limits and conflicting needs around communication; Mansions of Madness puts a clear ending ahead of you, that you know you might just barely might miss; in Kingdom Death, any roll could be literally (in-game…) fatal; Caverna lets you build a giant system and you just need a single puzzle piece to complete it; Werewolf creates a growing sense of paranoia, as the town’s population dwindles. Captain Sonar does this exquisitely, by giving every station operator ample opportunity to fail on behalf of the entire crew, while never providing quite all the tools they need for success.
The process of learning a game can bring it’s own entire genre of feelings to the table as well. The person teaching needs to make sure that everyone at the table is understanding what to do, and that they’re emotionally ‘regulated’ enough to absorb the information. New players (see PX2: The Familiarity Spectrum) may be concerned about frustrating or letting down the other players, which creates a whole additional input to their anxiety/arousal curve. When tabling Escape the Aliens from Outer Space for the first time, one player remarked “I just feel like you guys all know more rules to more games so this all makes more sense to you.” Not a great feeling for him, especially in a totally hidden-information game like Escape the Aliens, full of mistrust among players. This can crop up double when a design is early, and the rules aren’t totally nailed down yet, players who are newer to hobby gaming may just be getting comfortable with the concepts common to tabletop games, so a ruleset that’s in flux and probably broken can cause additional problems.
Once players are in the thick of things, their anxiety/arousal rollercoaster will likely be augmented by a few other types of feelings.
We already know that the other players are a huge factor in the experience of a game, but beyond that, Humans are incredibly social primates, so we’ve got all sorts of feelings when in social settings. How do we deal with our friends? Do we enjoy competing with them, or cooperating with them? XCOM puts us on the same team with our friends, against an increasingly brutal foe, while Captain Sonar teams us up with some of our friends, and against others. I’ve been in a game of Battlestar Galactica where, immediately after the game ended, the following exchange took place between a player who was trolling everyone all game, and one of his most frequent victims: “So for real, man, were you a Cylon?” “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW <Storms out of room>”. It was awesome 🙂
Additionally, feeling smart can be important to many people (I mean… no one likes to feel dumb, but feeling smart is more important to some than others). This feeling can be invoked by giving a player an obstacle to overcome, a puzzle to solve, or the opportunity to feel like they’ve successfully made something. Elliott likens this last type to the ‘Maker’ movement, and the unbelievable and ongoing popularity of Minecraft. Making something makes feels good.
Feeling smart can equate to feeling victorious in some as well — we love challenges; we love to pushed and made to struggle; and it’s more powerful to succeed by overcoming a challenge than to succeed by accident. For me, the connection I always think of is with Trivia (or Pub Quiz in some geographies). The ‘designer’ of the questions for Trivia night could have an incredibly easy job of making it too hard, with the most obscure, ridiculous question you could dredge up on Wikipedia: “How many yards did Barry Sanders rush for with 1997 Detroit Lions? “, or way too easy: “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb? “, but neither of those makes for good trivia. The reason people come to trivia is to feel smart… and questions that are preposterously hard either make people feel frustrated, dumb, or clueless while questions that are too easy, are boring. During trivia, you feel smart when the question is right at the periphery of your knowledge, and you have to reach for it, but you eventually grab ahold of it (possibly with a little social help from your teammates!), and score the point. The excitement of facing that challenge that’s just within reach is well demonstrated in Letters from Whitechapel and Android: Netrunner.
Another space for emotions is story. Stories and storytelling were mostly likely, literally, our first form of communication as humans, and they show no signs of tapering off. Stories are so prevalent, and so similar across cultures, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell was able to distill stories across vast cultures and eras into a predictable arc, which he termed the ‘Monomyth’. And yet, every time we apply story, we can tug at the heartstrings. Watching a movie creates emotions as the story unfolds on autopilot. Board games give the Player an opportunity to step into the story, and hopefully make an impact on the outcome. T.I.M.E Stories is a good example of this. Of course, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 rocked this as well. When players are in the story and making decisions, they can become attached to outcomes. Robinson Crusoe is Elliott’s favorite of these: “Ah shit the monkeys are back!”
[pullquote]”What feeling are players seeking out when they pull your game off the shelf?”[/pullquote]I’ve said many times though this series that it’s not intended to prescribe a specific direction for your game designs, merely to unearth dimensions that are worth considering. If you want to see some of these theories in practice, an interesting, simple experiment you could do is email your friends/post on Board Game Geek. Ask people what their favorite game is and to describe in detail one of their favorite experiences with that game. Elliott says, “Mine would be playing Captain Sonar with my girlfriend recently. She hadn’t played many games yet. She was in charge of figuring out where the other ship was. After about 10 minutes of back and forth, she whispers to me, ‘I’ve found the other ship’ and we shoot it down right there.”
In my own design, Valour, players play out the final sunset of the Gallic empire. Julius Caesar and the Roman army decimate the countryside, and a rich culture in antiquity about which we know little. In addition to designing according to a few first principles I laid down early in the project, I knew that I was aiming to instill a particular feeling in my players — a little uncertainty about how to interact with the other tribes, a sense of being overwhelmed by an unstoppable enemy, and just a wisp of sadness about the decline of culture.
Designing for People
If anything is the major takeaway from this exploration of Player Experience is that, while games boil down to rules and boxes and cardboard and ‘the industry’ and a community full of ‘shelfies’ and Bloodrage memes and complaints about Cards Against Humanity, we’re really designing for people — whether you game gets tabled over and over, or merely another trophy in someone’s collection — there are always people at the far end of our design process, and they’re the ultimate target of our works. And the closer we can keep that fact in mind as we design, the better our games are going to become.
Want to chat about the Player Experience? Email me: woodardj at gmail, put Player Experience in the subject line to make sure to see it — I also blog here roughly once a week on a wide array of board game topics, plus goal setting, and tips for taking your hobby seriously (in my case, and likely yours, board game design) and treating it like a business, so it can become a thing you get to do more often. So if you’ve subscribed, I encourage you to stay on for more good stuff! Cheers!