I hope to have the next Terminator review up later today. Until then, enjoy an article sent to us by one of our readers, discussing the role of imagination in AT gaming.
I have been thinking a lot lately about what Ameritrash means in general in terms of boardgames. For me, the defining quality of AT is its ability to accommodate imagination of the player in a manner that integrates the qualities of the “real” world with the established rules of the “created” world – whether this be fantasy, sci-fi, old west, etc. In fact, for me, a game purchase can almost always be traced to the theme and whether it appears to be rich enough to allow the imagination to run freely. It is easy to see how the general contents and style of AT games promote the imagination aspect and help weave a story.
First, the rules establish the parameters of the created world. Sometimes these rules are quite detailed (like D&D) or a little more streamlined (like Arkham Horror). In any event, these rules set the boundaries for the imagination of the players. The imagination is dovetailed with the universe’s parameters to create an immersive experience for the player. The entire point of the AT game is to feel like you are the character in the game you are playing (or at the very least, seeing the world from that characters point of view). In this regard, AT is much like well-written fiction where the reader feels like they are part of the story.
Second, in my opinion, the random element that is included in most AT games is there to provide the uncertainty that is present in everyday life. The success of most AT games hinges on creating a believable system of handling uncertainty with the only real restraint being that the attempted act fits within the confines of the created universe. The random element means there is almost always a chance of something happening, no matter what the odds are against that event, reflecting the inherent nature of unpredictability present in everyday life. As a Level 5 warrior, I have a chance (albeit slim) to deliver a mortal wound to a Hill Giant – just like a meteor might strike me down tomorrow as I head out to work.
For me, this happened recently in a game of Nexus Ops when my two Rubidium Dragons were defeated by two human miners (for the loss, no less). The non-ATer would likely respond incredulously by complaining about the randomness of the game ruining their victory; however, this outcome is easily reconciled if you are immersed in the game – perhaps the human miners shot my dragons in the eye or blew up some fuel reserves with a precisely aimed shot. Just like in real life, sometimes the best laid plans of mice and men go astray. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much someone optimizes their position, shit can go wrong….guns can jam, swords can be dropped, spells can be forgotten…nothing is guaranteed.
Third, the beautiful bits in AT games help facilitate the imaginative process. Well I am as glad as anyone to play a good RPG with orcs represented by nothing but a couple of O’s on a pieces of graph paper, there is something very fulfilling about rounding the corner in HeroQuest to see a couple of plastic goblins standing in the hallway. While it is not a necessity, it is just easier to imagine a situation when there are little plastic figures involved.
Often, people talk about the theme of the game and whether it is pasted on or not. Then there is usually some discussion about whether the mechanics are derived because of the theme or the mechanics stand alone and the theme can be anything. While I think this is somewhat useful in terms of parsing and categorizing game types, this “chicken or the egg first argument” becomes confusing and results in somewhat of a nebulous definition.
Personally, I don’t feel like the mechanics are ever developed with the theme in mind: (a) if the theme is the most important aspect of a game, then the rules are developed in such a manner that the mechanic simulates the theme; however, rolling dice really doesn’t simulate combat – it is just an abstraction of the probabilistic possibilities of a particular battle; (b) if the mechanic is most important, then the theme is pasted on in the end. This pasting occurs when the mechanics are complex enough that categorization via familiar entities will help “remember” the mechanics to make gameplay possible.
My reluctance to play some games (often the eurogames) is that I cannot immerse myself in the theme of the game or the established environment is too restrictive; in other words, there is nowhere for imagination to gain a foothold. Not to beat up on Agricola too much, but I feel that the gaming environment is too restrictive. The role selection is unrealistic….like mentioned in a previous thread, only one person can plow each turn, etc. A more AT approach (commensurate with my style of AT anyway) would be allowing individuals to choose different types of horses (based on cost, stamina, etc.) or perhaps incorporating some disease or plague, etc. Same with Puerto Rico – in no way do I feel like a colonist.
So in my opinion, AT is about imagination. It is about transporting to a make-believe world and living out the life of a character (or army, or whatever). Everything else is in service to this: theme, randomness, conflict (not a necessary component of AT in my opinion – and as Jorge nicely pointed out in an article earlier), etc. The fact that many games that tell these stories are based in the realm of fantasy and science fiction is just a bonus for me. The less fantastical the world I am imagining, the more realistic and detailed the script of choices has to be. This is my main complaint about Agricola/Puerto Rico/Caylus; however, if properly done, I would be glad to immerse myself within the life of a medieval farmer, a spanish colonist, or a medieval contractor...