The Crank File - Get a Life Hot

Egg Shen     
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Life

Welcome to the Crank File. Whenever I don't have a game review to share I'll take a topic out of the Crank File and craft it into an article for your enjoyment. Sometimes these articles will actually serve a purpose and go hand in hand with an upcoming review. That will be the case with my inaugural edition.


Boardgames come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors. You've got fantasy games, stock market games, sci-fi games, Lovecraft games, games named after medieval city games, zombie chow mein, princess fra diavolo, superhero jambalaya, Star Wars a la mode, gangster stew, shrimp gumbo, shrimp scampi, and butter poached shrimp. There, that covers every theme in the entirety of the whole universe.

Actually, I lied it doesn't. I can't lie to your delightful, smiling, faces. Plus, I can sense that you knew I fibbed. You grow up so fast! The real reason we're here today is to talk about life. Not my life.  My life is boring and filled with many unscrupulous details of growing up hard on the mean streets of Beach Town, USA. No, I shall not bore you with the tale of how I once vanquished a gang member with only a toothpick, soda pop, and small length of red yarn. That's a story, my friends, for another day. Today we're going to look at LIFE as a theme in gaming.

Games do not typically ground themselves with something as boring and pedestrian as living a life. Why would they? You don't get to poke a vampire in the heart with a pencil in real life. You never get to cast a fireball spell at a Treant while sitting at your cubicle. Worst of all, you never trade silk in the Mediterranean on your average Tuesday. So it only makes sense that games would veer away from boring ol' real life and provide players with a level of escapism. That's great, but why? Plenty of exciting things happen to people all the time. For example, just this morning I peed while sitting down. You know, just to change it up. Exciting! Plus isn't it fun to pretend? To live out a life you would never choose for yourself in a thousand lifetimes? No? Yes?

Hell yeah! I think it's great! It's the curiosity of experiencing someone else's hopes and dreams.  This obviously stems back to my childhood where we played the mass market hit, The Game of Life. Oh, how we would twirl that clickity-clackity spinner, be up to our drool covered chins in debt, have minivans full of screaming kids and trying to have a better life than everyone else! Hold up. Rewind to that last sentence. That’s the key right there…the proverbial knot that ties it all together and makes a boardgame about living life worthy of your attention.

EVERYONE wants to succeed in life. We want a lovely home, a lovely little family, a lovely job… everyone wants it all. And it all needs to be quite lovely! We're all in a miserable little rat race that moves so slowly we almost never step back and appreciate it. Life is too busy. It's too chaotic.

So how is a pretend life in a game fun? It's the fact that you can distill all of the best, most exciting, life choices into a short manageable timeframe. While trimming out the boring chaff. It's like stretching another person's persona over my sexy body and living out their life like a T-800 hell-bent on retiring in Pismo Beach. Plus, unlike real life, it's perfectly OK to crow and point fingers. Yes! You can laugh at someone's misfortune and sleep with their sexy wife and make Scrooge McDuck levels of coin and be a deadbeat parent and, and…oh my heavens! I'm a monster! [Editor's note: Up Author's psychosis meds immediately].

A decision in a game about life tends to be relatable. If a card lets you get married that might earn you happiness, which leads to points. We all understand being human and trying to succeed at life. It makes internalizing mechanics and rules a breeze. Whereas firing a catapult at a cadre of skeletal archers is something we can only conjure up in our heads. Doing it in a game might require slightly more mental pyrotechnics to remember. 

Games about life are essentially mini, one shot RPGs. It's easy to piece together narrative or story from simply playing the game. No flavor text needed! Sometimes I'll be a lawful good, family man. Other times, I'll end up a drunkard who has no money and performs salacious acts for my next bottle. When you sit down to play, you can be anything you want. An entire life is yours for the living! Am I unhappy being me? Not by a long shot. However, I get a rush of dopamine from playing God and molding some hapless schlep out of card play and bad game choices.

I understand the argument that games should offer an escape. We already drudge through the doldrums of existence each day and any game that can capture that feeling should burn in a fire. It's important to remember these games are the highlight reels of a life. There are no boring bits to endure. It's all sex, all drugs, all money and all pina coladas all the time!

These games are not flooding the market. I can only think of a handful of notable games that even use this theme. Obviously you have the big mass market one we previously mentioned. You've got card games like Chez Geek and Gloom. Friedemann Friese tried his hand at the genre with Funny Friends. Last Will is another game that comes to mind. It's an underrepresented genre. Should there be more?Does anyone have a favorite?

Boardgames about life offer a unique experience. It's like role playing without the fantasy heroics. I'd love to see more designers tackle life as a theme in their games. My first couple of reviews will focus on games that utilize this theme. Will they be good games? Tune in next time folks. Thanks for reading.

The Crank File - Get a Life There Will Be Games
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Posted: 05 Oct 2015 09:30 by the_jake_1973 #211892
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I have yet to acquire Kolejka here in the states. Recreating the fun of standing in line for goods in Soviet-Bloc Poland.
Posted: 06 Oct 2015 09:38 by Egg Shen #211994
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Pete - Thanks for pointing me towards that one. I've never heard of it and I def want to check it out. I wonder if the designer is still selling the game?

Jake - I was unaware of Kolejka. Now I want it. Bad. What's the deal with this game's distribution? Is it OOP or just never made it over to the States?

Kolejka illustrates something that I didn't have time to go into with my article. Games can have certain themes that aren't necessarily...living the best life. Yet at the same time they're still about living life. Kolejka certains seems to tap into that.

Think about the incredibly popular Agricola. The game is about life on the farm, but it never really feels like that. Sure the act of expanding the farm and planting crops is well done. However, the family aspect is really non existent. All you can really do is make a new baby/worker and then send em to work. There is no attachment or sense of ownership with the family/workers. They're just little tokens you send out to get shit done. If the game could have figured out a way to give your family some personality that would have been awesome. The game comes with a shitload of improvement/job cards. It would have been great if you could have assigned personality or traits to each family member. Hell even giving them something to do besides farm work or doing worker placement stuff. Not sure how it would work, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

Another idea is that games can be about aspect of life and focus on that. I'd love to see a Cthulhu game where you're just a person in a mental ward slowly going insane. Except, instead of focusing on typical Lovecraftian horrors and whatnot the game would be about visiting doctors, getting help...maybe finding out if your character is mentally ill...or really haunted by something lurking in the shadows. So while the game isn't about living life...it's ABOUT a person's life. A simple twist on a familiar genre is something I'd love see. Make a game about a spice trader that isn't about just buying a selling goods. Make it about the spice trader's family and business.

I dunno, I just find games like this to be more personal and you really can really take ownership of what's going on. Games are just bits of plastic, cardboard and an arbitrary sets of rules...anything that makes the people playing them more invested always scores big points with me.
Posted: 06 Oct 2015 10:26 by Gary Sax #211998
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^Agree re: Agricola.

This is going to be a weird comparison but this plays into sports games. The NBA2K series has this career mode thing light RPG thing that should be miserable---but it really helps invest the games with more meaning even just having context specific cutscenes between games where you talk about recent achievements, beefing with teammates, etc.
Posted: 07 Oct 2015 08:49 by Egg Shen #212066
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Yeah I get that comparison. I used to play quite a few sports games back in high school and college and those "create a character" career modes were addictive as all hell. Just having something of your own to mold, however small, made you want to keep playing and invest your time into it.

I think it's natural that whenever a game of any kind gives you the freedom to shape a character, town, business etc... it gives the player more satisfaction.
Posted: 07 Oct 2015 11:09 by SuperflyTNT #212081
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Egg Shen wrote:
Pete - Thanks for pointing me towards that one. I've never heard of it and I def want to check it out. I wonder if the designer is still selling the game?
This is what you get for not checking the Circus often!

www.funbraincardgames.com/ Maybe?
Think about the incredibly popular Agricola. The game is about life on the farm, but it never really feels like that. Sure the act of expanding the farm and planting crops is well done. However, the family aspect is really non existent. All you can really do is make a new baby/worker and then send em to work. There is no attachment or sense of ownership with the family/workers. They're just little tokens you send out to get shit done. If the game could have figured out a way to give your family some personality that would have been awesome. The game comes with a shitload of improvement/job cards. It would have been great if you could have assigned personality or traits to each family member. Hell even giving them something to do besides farm work or doing worker placement stuff. Not sure how it would work, but it feels like a missed opportunity.

It's not about life on a farm. It' not about family. It's about efficiency of action, and that's all. The setting is a village with farms, sure, but the theme has nothing to do with farming. If you rethemed it about building a car factory (which would actually be cool) it would be identical. That said, I still adore it because it delivers the ILLUSION of being about a farm, provided you play it with your blinders on.