Experimental Aesthetics in Tabletop Games
This is an excerpt from Joseph Nally’s larger thesis portfolio titled “Post-Elegance: Experimental Aesthetics in Tabletop Game Design.” It is a part of the Class of 2020’s graduate thesis presentation “Statements from Isolation.”
Nineteen eighty-six was an important year in the development of games. Two obscure things happened: the mass publication of Heimlich & Co. by Wolfgang Kramer, and the release of a little-known computer game, Lords of Conquest. The arcane study of game design was exclusively known in the world of the physical—that is, board, card, role-playing, or as a whole, “tabletop” games. For the first time, the designers of the experimental board game Cosmic Encounter decided to implement a previous design, Borderlands, into Lords of Conquest. Lords of Conquest was a mix between the battle conflict found in Risk and the random resource management that later was adopted in the best-selling Eurogame The Settlers of Catan. The game was highly political, the theme foreign to most players, and the aesthetic was like a science-fiction prop found in Logan’s Run. Meanwhile, Heimlich & Co., a German children’s game, introduced a new concept into tabletop gaming, the “Action Point Allowance System,” and a printed score-bar around the board, referred to as the “Kramerlieste.”
The tabletop industry developed an obsession for a type of design interface, known simply as “elegance,” that remained foundational in the mature genre of board games, known as Eurogames. With the over-digitalization of gaming, many players resorted to tabletop games to rediscover what it means to make social connections, have fun, and experience new game designs. The American games influenced by Eurogames are often called “Hybrids,” and many young, aspiring tabletop designers have cloned the Eurogames that were foisted upon them through The Settlers of Catan. This obsession with a precise, Rube Goldberg–esque machine that rewards little to no player influence still dominates the market. Players cannot influence one another, as they can only focus on their own “puzzles.” Games like Cosmic Encounter or even the video game Lords of Conquest thought to break that paradigm in the industry, but instead the result was that tabletop enthusiasts scorn these as “Ameritrash” games, an insult for a highly thematic and random type of American game.
In 1996, tabletop designer Andy Looney decided to program a video game, Icebreakers, based on a modular system of three-dimensional pyramids he made up. In Icebreakers, each pyramid represented a trait, by color, that served as an obstacle against the player. Players could also customize their own level by choosing and placing the color pyramids they desired on the map. Hypothetically, such a game could also be utilized with Looney’s actual pyramids in the world of tabletop games.
Video games, which have become a medium for social control, were once designed by the same people who made Cosmic Encounter and Icehouse Pyramids. The future of games could have taken on a more, futuristic approach into the experimental, eccentric, and modular in design and “psychedelic” in theme. Video games felt more like a second reality, while tabletop games were a medium of experimental play. “Gaming” can be used as a method of social control to sell a product, rather than presented as a unique, artistic expression done by the designer. Where is gaming going in the next few decades? Whatever happened to the game designer, and the interest in creating interactive, classic games?
This is about tabletop games that exist outside the current paradigm of the popular design. I believe that “elegance,” as a concept, advocates non-interactive puzzles—and in some sense, often in video games, creates an illusion that players are actually doing something. This is sadly becoming apparent through the current tabletop scene. Therefore, I present a taxonomy and reason where the future of tabletop game design can exist in a “post-elegant” period that takes influence from the experimental, eccentric, and modular.
The ancestors of Lords of Conquest and Icebreakers came from Cosmic Encounter and Icehouse Pyramids. Going forward, the hybrid tabletop games need a new ancestor, other than The Settlers of Catan. Why not something that is “post-elegant”?
Game Studies as a Discipline
Game studies can be best described as the study of games, the act of playing them, and the culture it produces. Games are proliferating in all sorts of digital mediums and the “gamification” of everyday life. The oldest medium of game-playing is through the physical. Aside from sports, board games—professionally called “tabletop” games—make up a large portion of the history of games. With the advent and popularity of video games, consumer culture has taken a sharp turn back into the novel and new interest of modern tabletop games. Tabletop game design becomes a serious endeavor into discussions of philosophy, art, and design.
The history of the modern tabletop game industry can be summed up over half a century. Starting in the 1950s and into the 2020s, board games have evolved into a hybridization of many mechanical influences. As a common observer and consumer of tabletop games, I started to see regressive trends in design and of aesthetics. What is currently being produced in the market, I believe, is not living up to the standards of “good” game design (and I mean to say that there is a value to “good” design). Instead, the Eurogame model, and its hybrid influences, has dominated the industry. The Eurogame can be defined as a mature, adult-oriented board game, where non-interactivity, skill, and efficiency in its interface become central to the game’s design. This creates a design that is more like a puzzle than an actual “playful” game. The aesthetic that best describes the Eurogame and hybrid model is “elegance.”
The concept of elegance, according to Keith Burgun, is described as “efficiency,” or “accomplishing as much possible with as little as possible.” Accordingly, game design is not a calculating machine, but instead, a technical, engineering problem, where efficiency becomes a requirement. Efficiency, for Burgun, is beautiful. Burgun also advocates that video games should take the “elegant” way forward, as presented in Eurogames. Elegance in Eurogames means an efficient interface with sophisticated outcomes. This is similar to moving a piece in chess or placing a stone in Go. Many variations in the game state can happen, and the player only has to make a single choice. This efficiency of elegance, however, submits a player to the control of the game. The game controls the player’s dependency, and creates an echo chamber of little to no player expression. The experience of elegance in tabletop games is similar to playing an addictive video game with no replay value.
From my own investigation, I believe the origin of both the elegance aesthetic and the Eurogame genre came from one source, and that is from Wolfgang Kramer’s board game Heimlich & Co. Game mechanics, like the “Action Point Allowance System” and the Kramerleiste (the “Kramer bar,” which is printed around the board and named after Wolfgang) invented the elegance aesthetic through design. In the game, players roll a die and are given actions to move the wooden spies around the Bavarian village. Players score points and move their score counters around the Kramerleiste. The player with the highest score after one round around the Kramerleiste (passing 41 points) is the winner. The legacy of Wolfgang’s Action Point Allowance System and the Kramerleiste remains influential in Eurogame mechanics.
Raph Koster, a respected intellect in game studies, argues that the purpose of all games is to teach people, while at the same have fun. Koster has gone as far as to argue that “the only real difference between games and reality is that the stakes are lower within games.” This would mean that existence itself is a game, and that learning new skills in real life has the same consequences as learning new skills in a game. This is what I refer to as “process solving,” or the aesthetic of “learning” new skills in a game. The point is to learn these specific skills and hopefully win the game. However, this assumes that games are mere learning devices to teach people random skills and subjects, and overlooks the fact that games can also be unserious and playful.
A different kind of aesthetic I have also coined is “narrative building,” or an aesthetic in which a game can be a device to recite a narrative. Many role-playing games and modern video games tell stories. These kind of games assume that the story is the most important part of the gaming experience. My criticism against this approach is that games are not stories. I believe, however, that the narrative-building aesthetic is often misunderstood as process solving, where the story is often used as a transformative template to disguise a sophisticated puzzle. Narrative building can be beneficial for designing games outside this norm. But too often, narratives are used as political devices than a mechanic that is playful.
Miguel Sicart has a radical belief that games “don’t matter that much” and are solely for the interface of play. Play can transform the game’s environment. According to Sicart, “By disrupting the context in which it takes place, play is a creative, expressive force.” Sicart refers to this as “dark play.” Within dark play, there can be the emergence of a system of game design that disrupts the nature of an elegant interface, a novel narrative-building experience, and a process-solving IQ test. Play becomes a fundamental desire that has been shunned from Eurogame discourse, as so much of the genre becomes dependent upon the previous aesthetics.
Oddly enough, there has always been a subculture based around “dark play,” or experimental tabletop games in the past decades. The best examples includes the work of Ron Hale Evan’s Ludism.org and Andy Looney’s Wunderland.com. Hale-Evans, a graduate from Yale University, proposed a semi-religious club called Ludism, while Looney, the designer of Icehouse Pyramids, operates his private gaming club, Wunderland. Both sites praise the psychedelic aesthetics of Rubik’s Cubes, kaleidoscopes, lava lamps, and the art of Peter Max. For example, Wunderland encourages playful curiosity: “Give yourself time to get lost here, and you’ll find games, photographs, stories, poems, opinion pieces, essays, recipes, wacky art projects, and other stuff, too. It’s quite an eclectic assortment.”
The aesthetics of elegance, process solving, and narrative building are popular within the market for tabletop games. This literature review will examine tabletop games through design and cultural theory, while acknowledging these aesthetics in the emergence of a new, transformative aesthetic, dubbed as “post-elegance.” Post-elegance is an aesthetics that shares the tradition of the experimental, eccentric, and modular traits in tabletop game design.
In my own terminology, these terms are defined as the following:
The Experimental is new, unpopular, or innovative mechanics and play within game design.
The Eccentric is unconventional, even strange in theme and outside the norm of an expected theme.
And the Modular are units, mechanics, or rules that influence, construct, or create a more complex structure within the games system.
In addition, there is a “psychedelic” theme to post-elegant games, which comes from the tradition of tabletop games from the 1960s through the 1990s. The best examples of these types of games are Cosmic Encounter and Icehouse Pyramids.
Several questions will be addressed. Is a mechanic-based approach in the history of tabletop games ultimately good for design? Is the consumer base for tabletop games crucial to design trends in the industry? Has the aesthetics of elegance, narrative-building, and process-solving morphed into bad influences in the culture? And how will post-elegance ultimately enrich tabletop game design? All this ties to the question about the ethics of social control and how design can liberate this paradigm.