Think of a favorite story with a really satisfying ending. The resolution of the main plot might have been surprising, but after it was revealed to you, didn't it feel inevitable? "Of course! It had to end that way," you might think. There was a sense of unity and completion to the story.
Now, there are plenty of examples of great literature with ambiguous or inconclusive endings, but those works are appreciated for their beautiful prose, psychologically insightful characterization, stylistic innovation, or any of a host of other reasons. They might be great novels, but that's
not what I'm talking about, here. I'm talking about one aspect of literature: the plot; the story.
Plenty has written on this site about setting, theme, and narrative in board games, and I agree with much of it. Games have an important role as a medium for storytelling, after all. Still, I'm happy enough with my pastel camels and my cloth bag of RA tiles; I don't always need immersive storytelling in my games.
That's why I was surprised by reaction, a couple of months ago, when I played, GOA, a 2004 release from Hans-im-Glueck/Rio Grande Games. Now, GOA is exactly the kind of game that we hold up for ridicule here in the Fortress. It's an orthodox by-the-numbers Euro design that takes no aesthetic risks. Each player collects sets of items on her personal playmat. Once in a while, there's an auction on the central board, and that auction is the only vehicle for player interaction. The game is PRINCES OF FLORENCE'S copycat kid sister.
And despite all that, I was happy to play it, and I'm grateful for the opportunity. The people with whom I played were patient with me as they explained the rules, and gracious when I made mistakes during the game. I had a pretty good time overall. The game is a WEAK SEVEN, in the best and worst senses of that term: inoffensive and unremarkable. It didn't engage my imagination, but it was alright.
But there was one thing that was nagging me throughout the game. It wasn't "this is no fun," or "this needs more interaction," or "there's no theme, here." In other words, it wasn't any of the usual criticisms that we habitually level against cliché Eurogames. Instead, I found myself thinking "but why is the designer asking me to do this?" And that, I think, is the true problem with the game, and with many, similar Euros. It's not the total failure to narrate a story or evoke a setting. It's not the lack of interaction. It's the arbitrariness of the exercise. Like a plot with an illogical resolution, the game lacks what I've earlier described as unity and completion. There's no inevitability. No sense that the game is exactly as it must be.
GOA is a bag of mechanisms. I have no insight into the reasons these specific mechanisms were selected by the game designer. If I were to change the rules of the game, I'd create an imbalance in the scoring system or something, I guess. But I wouldn't violate the fundamental idea that underpins that game's design, because - as far as I can tell - there isn't one.
And that's the problem with many of the Euros that are being produced today. What is the motivating idea behind SAINT PETERSBURG? I'm embarrassed to say that I've played the game many times. Still, I can't answer the question.
Many of the classic titles of the 1990s era of German Games don't have this problem because they are so resolutely minimal. What is the
point of a Knizia auction game like MEDICI? To me, it's the audaciousness of the idea that you could create an interesting, functioning game by stripping the auction mechanism bare. Hell, there isn't even any money in the game; you're paying for your auction lots with by spending Victory Points. We like to criticize such austere, themeless games, but nobody can deny that MEDICI has unity of design. It would be hard to change the game without breaking it, unless you start adding stuff to it. But once you start adding things to a design like MEDICI, the pure crystalline beauty of its minimalism is lost.
The problem with minimalism as a design methodology is that it's damn hard. Knizia has already done all of the minimalist auction games. How many more are even possible? The idea of applying a German sense of austerity to board game design yielded some terrific results fifteen years ago, and the results were the LOUIE LOUIES and WILD THINGS of gaming. But now that all of those brilliant riffs, so beautiful in their simplicity, have been discovered, Eurogames are firmly stuck in their own Prog-rock era. Time signatures change, there are noodly synthesizer solos that go on forever, but there is no aesthetic unity -- no sense of "aha! It had to be this way!"
My message, then, is this: the next time you're compelled to criticize a game for its lack of theme, consider instead whether the real problem is something more fundamental. Maybe the game is not just themeless, but pointless, incoherent, and lacking any aesthetic unity. Like a story with a stupid, unsatisfying ending, it frustrates our desire to say "this makes sense. It's exactly as it must be."