I was playing The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls with some of my friends a few months ago. At the end of said game one of my friends stands up, look down at the board games that unfolded and said the following:
“Isaac isn’t a game; Isaac is an experience.”
I asked him what he meant by this, and he went on to explain the details. His thought was that some board games are not meant to be taken seriously, at least not in the competitive sense. Some games exist purely as experiences, games that you play to take part in some novel thing they do, or dynamics you create. They are not there to win as such. Of course, in a lot of these games that fall under this category, you can win but that victory may feel hollower compared to the act of playing the game.
The more I thought about this, the more I agreed with him. So, this whole conversation got me and my friends thinking, what are some games that fall under this category? This is what I want to discuss. I will take you through some of my choices, board games that I would class as ‘experiences’ and what features these games have in common and which ones do certain features of the ‘experience’ better than the others.
A game that originally started as a Kickstarter and has recently had another Kickstarter to fund a massive expansion, I would class The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls as a bit of an anomaly in the board game world. I have never seen a game that has packed so many cards into a single product and has not charged for that through a Trading Card Game. The sheer amount of content available in the biggest version of the game is undeniable. This is also the game that sparked this discussion, so what is special about it that turns into an ’experience’?
The best way to understand this is to understand a few key things about this game. The first thing (and least important thing) about this game is that it is based on a very popular video game of the same name. This video game is a dungeon crawler and to put it lightly: is a tough game. The game always has it out for you in some way shape or form and the items you collect throughout the game may not even be an upgrade and may force you into weird play patterns as you are trying your hardest to defeat a big glob of skin with a cute face that’s named Monstro. Four Souls, by creator Edmund McMillen’s design, has inherited a lot from the videogame, including its ability to hand you a hard time at any point through its randomness.
This is the second point, that the game is very random. Both the card game and video games have a lot of random elements. Unfortunately, this means that as you are slowly flipping cards off each of Four Souls' now 4 decks, it sometimes just hands you a massive disadvantage. However, this always means it might hand you the best item in the game. This randomness means the Four Souls is not a game where you can control everything that happens to you like in Chess, but instead, you are trying to curb the randomness the best you can. This is not to say that every game that has a random element becomes an experience. Otherwise, games of chicken like The Quacks of Quedlinberg, which has a random element and is still very competitive, would then fall into the experience category. Four Souls instead becomes an experience due to how swingy that randomness is. The fact that anyone can be served a game-winning item at a moment's notice creates cool game moments for the experience but perhaps dampers the skill element of the game. This randomness I think can be one of the key creators in creating an experience of a game rather than an actual game and we will see some of it peppered throughout the next few games.
Fun fact: this randomness and the fact you can have a rubbish game from forces out of your control is why one of my other friends in my main game group despises Four Souls. On the other hand, its why the other 3 of us love it!
Cosmic Encounter is another game that is near and dear to my heart. Each player takes on an alien race vying to settle on 5 of the other players’ planets and protect their five planets from invasion. The game runs on a hand management and diplomacy core, in which you try and convince the other players around the table to help you invade and then manoeuvre your way into a favourable outcome.
This game again has a few elements I want to highlight. The first element is this game features joint victories. Instead of participating in combat, Cosmic Encounter allows you (if both players play the same card) to negotiate. Successful negotiation in this game means one of two things. Either any number of cards trade hands or a foreign colony is traded. Foreign colonies are the way you win this game and that means if you are both on four foreign colonies then you trade foreign colonies through a negotiation, you both win! How does this develop Cosmic into an experience? It decides to embrace a quirk of its design. The rules easily could have said, ‘You cannot win via negotiation’ which would have made sure the last point is scored by combat. The game puts aside competition and says: ‘Let’s do something interesting.’ Whereas I do not think this is a major contributor to the creation of an experience, it does do something that all the features I will be discussing do. These features all enable epic moments and joint victories are just one way that can be done.
Cosmic has another feature that extends on the randomness we saw in Four Souls but also puts an additional spin. I mentioned that in Cosmic you play an alien race. There are about 50 in the base game, and they all take what is quite a simple set of rules and procedures to bend and add to them. For example, there is one faction that does not lose ships almost ever. This means the game is always constantly changing its constraints and conditions which creates once again, great individual moments with the trade-off of an even competitive field. The fact that the game has these unique powers once again adds to the experience and means that we have a game about experiencing the craziness rather than winning, even though that might be nice.
These two games for me have the final element that could constitute an experience and that is just the sheer magnitude and length. Four Souls had a large magnitude in the number of cards, but nothing comes even close to these mammoth games. For those who have never had the honour of witnessing these behemoths, both Twilight Imperium (TI) and Axis and Allies (A&A) are both war games of huge scale where you are either trying to rule the galaxy or play out your World War 2 fantasies. They both do things very differently in some ways and very similar in others to the point where I love TI and hate A&A. Even then, they both still sprawl across the table presenting you with whole systems to engage with.
This scale can be overwhelming the first time you see it. TI is a 4X game. You spread your galactic civilisation across the stars exploiting the resources of planets to churn out a war machine or influence the politics of the galaxy. Each faction also has its quirks and powers (a feature we identified earlier) that further adds to the theme of the game. The enigma in front of you suddenly does not become about winning, it becomes about understanding. TI especially has this certain quality of being a galactic community and simulating that rather than the act of winning. How do pacifist space turtles interact with merchant space lions? This can be taken one step further by choosing to role-play as those factions. TI provides a complete toolset for this kind of experience where you and your friends are constantly interlocked in this galactic simulation.
This style of the game goes for A&A too. A game that is solely focused on war but has interlocked in this simulation of WW2, where you are once again dragged into a puzzle. What is the best way to do this? Will this blow back in my face if my team fails their dice roll? These war games are both hours long, but they are hours long because they both simulate something in some detail. This is the final aspect of “experience” board games.
I hope this blog has got you thinking differently about some of your favourite games. Games that are not just about winning but serve much better as dragging you into some world or mechanics!