Viewer Culture and Boardgames

Over the past decade or so there has been a massive increase in individuals who enjoy games as a medium for watching rather than a medium for playing. This is evident in the explosion of e-sports, Let’s Plays, tabletop series, etc.

When it comes to specifically board games, though, there’s not much of a viewer culture. And aside from the culture, in my experience it’s just not particularly interesting to watch people play board games most of the time. There’s a few “problems” with existing board games that make them poor subjects for viewing. To figure out these problems, and some solutions, I’m going to do a mock interview.

More like an interrogation.

More like an interrogation.

Q: Who cares if board games aren’t often great for viewing?

A: Nobody cares. But it’d be nice if it happened.

Q: Why?

A: There’s lots of people who enjoy hanging out with their friends but get stressed thinking about having to strategize or learn new rules. If these individuals could be included then everyone in that friend group can feel better about board game night.

Q: What’s the problem with board games compared to videogames? Or even RP tabletop games?

A: Videogames are flashy, and RP games have a level of descriptive spectacle. They have good stories (whether in-game stories or real stories of player triumph). They also have clear displays of skill that are easy to recognize when they happen. A lot of board games, on the other hand, have subtle strategies that you can only really appreciate if you know enough about the game to play it to a reasonable degree… Which immensely narrows down the number of people who’d be interested in watching.

Q: Party games too?

A: Oh no those are usually fine. I guess I was just thinking of strategy-ish games, having spent a lot of last year playing Scythe / Terra Mystica / Gloomhaven / Five Tribes / etc.

Q: What are the solution[s] to boring-to-watch strategy games?

A: I see two solutions: the first is considering a new design parameter when crafting games, which is the expectation of having a third-party observer. The second is to add smaller, indirect roles of lower complexity and lower stakes for viewers to take part in.

Q: Pandering? Oversimplication? Dumbing down? Snowflakes?

me @ me

me @ me

A: I don’t think all games would need to follow my theoretical solution like a style guide, at the mutual exclusion of people who enjoy depth and complexity. It’d be nice to have some strategy games that are as fun to watch as party games are, though.

Q: How would the first solution work, about the design parameter?

A: There would need to be a study of ‘things that are fun to watch in a game’ first. But generally I believe that would include things like: “swingier” plays; more repercussions of doing a correct/incorrect play; a stronger storyline made more evident in the actual play; more obvious marking or demonstration of what a player is going for / doing, or when certain checkpoints are reached; etc. Opportunity for “upsets” where it’s obvious when a player gets the upper hand or turns the tables. Things like that.

Q: Seems hard to balance.

A: It depends. A lot of sports have “linear” progression where sweet plays and regular plays both net you Just One Point, and getting a point doesn’t make it easier to get more. Perhaps the types of board games that are most fun to watch are ones that have multiple shorter rounds, because explosive turns can happen without eliminating someone from the game until it ends 45 minutes later. Instead, if rounds are short, or the effects of punchy plays are contained, we can still maintain both balance and spectacle.

Q: So it’s just swingier games.

A: Well, that’s one suggestion. Anything that’s more obvious would also help. On a physical level, there’s stuff like “cooler actions”. Think of how it feels when checker players do three captures in a row, or poker players push in all their chips. There’s something viscerally appealing about certain physical motions, both in haptics and visuals, that appear in some games.

Other examples include: more creative board designs; having more obviously differentiated actions; using props or pieces to clearly demonstrate if something cool just happened; a board state that is absolutely clear with regards to what just changed and who just did what. This stuff doesn’t sound like much - and to a seasoned player it probably doesn’t. But to someone who’s watching, “small” things like visuals are kinda the entire point. Everything becomes “just” a visual when you’re watching it.

In other words, I think it’s a matter of UX or UI design where there’s an opportunity to make a game be more appealing to watch by cleaning up the process. However, it may also be a fruitful prompt to consider a strategy game where incremental advantage leads to flashy effects, or incremental effects are replaced in general for the sake of making them more interesting on the spectator level.

Q: OK. What about the second idea, which is nonimportant game roles?

A: It’d work best if there was more than one person watching, in which case there could be a meta game happening - kind of like the way sports bets work. But it could also be roles like reading the stuff, curating board piece things, acting as a simple AI enemy, presenting and choosing allocation of rewards among players, being the banker, etc. There are plenty of roles that could exist - some of these, like banker, often happen to outside observers already.

These roles could not only be instrumental, but could also lead to the benefit of additional complexity for the strategists in the game. For example, if there’s less cognitive load on moving around enemies or fiddling with the board, or on deciding who gets what card in XY circumstance, the rest of the game rules could get more complicated without making the game too tedious to play.

Q: Reminder: why should we care?

A: Sometimes you want to play a complicated game but you have a friend who is really tired from a long day. Or they get anxious learning a game without watching someone else. Or maybe they just aren’t big on deep strategy. Games with varying levels of role complexity seems like a good solution to the fact that players have different needs and preferences from one another.

Q: So was this just for developers to read?

A: Nah, I’m sure there are games out there that already employ multiple asymmetrical roles. And I’m sure there are swingy games that are very enjoyable to watch. Poker’s on TV, IMO, because the stakes are so high.

Anyway. In summary, this was some food for thought for when you’re picking out a game on board game night. If your friend says they want to hang out, but only want to watch: let them!

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