Player Agency in boardgames and RPGs

Last week there was an interesting interview on Slate’s The Gist with Peter Mendelsund, an ex-concert pianist and current designer of book covers. The conversation turned to how much agency the audience/reader/player has when engaging with different types of entertainment, and the interesting quote that struck me and got me thinking about boardgames was this:

… we imagine reading as being a medium in which we have no agency, we’re passive recipients of the author’s work, and video games as being the opposite, where we’re active participants. And the more you examine, say, just those two media you find out it’s actually quite the opposite in some ways, that reading is way more active and we have way more agency than we think we do and in video games it’s sort of the opposite, we’re way more put in the runnels that the programmer has made for us.

The argument is that because literary descriptions are usually fairly economical, the reader does a lot of construction out of their experience and imagination to create the scene that is in truth only sketched in the text. Mendelsund calls out The Lord of the Rings specifically as a book that relies on the agency of the reader to create the full experience, and how for him the movies ruined the experience of reading the books – because now when Gandalf appears he just conjures up Ian McKellen instead of engaging his imagination. Mendelsund is a book cover designer, and he thinks about the fact that once you concretize a character through an illustration, you take away some of the reader’s agency.

This tweaked me immediately because I had been thinking about player creativity and its vital role in boardgames and RPGs. I have been getting back into MMP’s Operational Combat Series of wargames with the fantastic Reluctant Enemies, and as I was playing it reminded me why I love these games: they generally give the players a huge amount of latitude to do creative and expressive problem-solving, to change not just their chances of winning but the entire course of the game. It struck me as similar to the effect I aim for in the Star Wars: Age of Rebellion game I am running, albeit using a completely different set of tools in a completely different context. The recent release of the terrific Blue Moon Legends has me playing that again also, which has always struck me as a game that particularly rewards finding creative cardplay sequences and combinations, something above and beyond pure tactical analysis.

It became clear to me that a game that gave its players real agency is what divides the good from the great for me. Immediately after thinking this, though, I realized that what exactly agency is in this context is not so easy to simply express. Intriguingly, it seems to work in exactly the same way for both RPGs and boardgames, and so at first I thought of “agency” as “rewarding player creativity”. But as I thought about it more, it became more slippery. Creativity is clearly a very big part of it, but it’s not a sufficient description. Games from across the spectrum can reward various types of player creativity in a range of different ways: High Frontier, Race for the Galaxy, Lost Legends, Blue Moon Legends, Android: Netrunner, Battle Above the Clouds, No Retreat, Ashen Stars, The One Ring. But there are other games where the players clearly have what I think of as agency but which I can’t really see as creative per se, like Modern Art and Lord of the Rings. There are games where players need to be creative but it’s not clear they have agency, like Dixit or Telestrations. There are games which seem like they might reward creativity, but system imbalances or constraints mean they probably don’t, like X-Wing or GMT’s COIN games. And there are games which support or provide outlets for creativity in different ways but where it’s not really part of the game, like Arkham Horror or Games of Thrones: Westeros Intrigue.

This last category is intriguing to me, because it’s both a very large class of games and also the closest analogy to Mendelsund’s idea of how we interact with books: although the players’ choices don’t affect the course of the game, on the other hand the experience of playing provides a sketch in which you have to (and which the game allows you to) fill in with your imagination to move forward and bring the game to life. In a game, though, I find this form of agency the least compelling, least useful, and also the most technically difficult to meld with an interesting game. Games are different from books: they are shared with multiple people and require a shared framework, and they take place in strict time where everyone has to move at the same pace, more or less. They require a quite different sort of player agency to feed engagement. It’s clear that simply engaging the players’ imaginations can turn a so-so game (Grand National Derby) into a very good one (Titan: The Arena), or a non-game (Munchkin) into something people like a lot. But this is not a particular strength of the boardgame form, and I’m always far more interested in what games can do that other forms can’t.

To loop back a bit, in the realm of RPGs I’ve spent the last few years pursuing games that strongly encourage player agency. For me, RPGs aren’t fun – either as a player or the GM – unless the players are actively involved in the creative process, unless their decisions change not just their chance of success in any given scene but the entire course of the story. Thus I have been drawn to Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, Numenera, and Hillfolk. For plenty of players, though, agency is not a feature and is in fact something they specifically don’t want. They want the GM to set up some scenes for them, and they want to interact with them. Just as in the world of boardgames, there are games that support both preferences. I think this may be part of the trap that 13th Age fell into for me personally: although it tries to give the players much more freedom to be creative, it is also clearly set in a genre where the main games (D&D and Pathfinder) are the games of choice for players who don’t particularly want agency.

I came away from all this thought without a clear definition of how agency works in boardgames, other than that it is important to me and some people like it and others don’t (the picture is obviously much clearer in RPGs). So I thought I’d close with a few capsule comments about boardgames where I feel like I have real agency and how I think it works.

Knizia’s Lord of the Rings is a game that is sending distinctly mixed messages, and presents a particularly difficult critical problem. On the one hand, with its fixed throughline, the players clearly have no ability to affect the overarching flow of the game. On the other hand, because the risk-reward probabilities are so complex and the thinking required frequently so long-term, the players do have a huge amount of flexibility in how they choose to attack the problems – far more meaningful flexibility than in any other cooperative game, even before you throw in the expansions. While the instances of truly creative problem-solving may be rare, they do exist; those occasional eureka moments where you realize that if I use the Miruvor, you can pass the Mithril to Frodo which allows him to use Gollum without dying and to escape from Shelob’s Lair are really cool. At the same time, the fixed throughline could be viewed as a list of checkpoints which allow all the players to stay on track together while still being able to construct their own internal narratives. I don’t think of Lord of the Rings as giving the players true narrative or creative agency; the real strength of the game is how it evokes the books in forging the players into a fellowship through the trials it sets up for them (and this is perhaps the greatest agency the players have, in how they relate to the other players in the game). On the other hand the game is also so much more than the sum of its mechanics, probabilities, and presentation, and it give the players the chance to decide what the game means to them.

Reluctant Enemies is the game that sent me down this path, because as I was playing it – even as the more reactive Vichy French who play primarily defense – I was impressed both by how much legitimate flexibility I had in deciding how to attack tactical problems, and how dramatically the choices of the players affects the flow of the game. Much of this is driven by how much information is concealed – available supply, so crucial to being able to do anything in this system – and so how much uncertainty there is. In a more traditional wargame like Roads to Moscow or France ’40 the players can see everything that matters and so it’s much harder for a game to get away from being strict tactical problem solving and allow players true flexibility and choice. Even in games like War of the Ring or Hammer of the Scots, where there is a lot of hidden information, right and wrong answers to the situation develop as players feel out the game and their flexibility and agency gets stripped away. By contrast, in Reluctant Enemies, right and wrong answers are created only out of the choices the players make and are largely unknowable in the moment.

Thinking of games where agency seems to start high but goes to zero over time, Dominion is to me a classic example. When you first play it there is this sense of endless possibility, that by creatively mixing and matching cards and ratios you can create interesting effects and control the game. As you gain even a little experience though, you find that the cards aren’t particularly well balanced, that some are worth the effort and many are not, that the game rewards simplicity to an extreme degree, and so each set tends to be an up-front tactical problem-solving search for the critical card or combination. Ascension (and similar games like Star Realms), by making you figure out how to take advantage of a constantly changing environment, is much better at tapping into player creativity and feelings of agency. It’s probabilistic – occasionally the exact cards you need are magically turned over off the deck, and everything just works out – but you earn your stripes in the game by turning what seems like a bunch of nothing into something.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is the game which is the obvious analog to the book-reading experience. As you string together these blocks of text you get to construct in your head the cinematic narrative. Because the ongoing story applies only to you, and only your choices affect it, it doesn’t matter if different players construct radically different ideas about what’s going on. Reading the paragraphs are also little bits of performance art (very little, but still). Additionally, and also cool, is that your choices of skills and how you develop them has obvious and significant effects on how the story unfolds. These elements are strengths and weakness, though. Because Tales is an analog to a book-reading experience (with each player individually developing his or her own story), and because book reading doesn’t scale that well past 1, having players beyond 2 or 3 simply degrades the experience.

Talking about Advanced Squad Leader in this context makes me sad because it’s a game I like, but at the end of the day I think ASL is much more of a game of tactical problem solving than it is about player creativity. The variety of tactical situations it puts you in is vast and it rewards being able to simplify very complex problems, but usually creative solutions are less important than correct solutions. The interesting counterpoint – which shows the huge range of the system and the difficulty of generalizing about it – is that the night rules change the texture of the game drastically. All of a sudden players have far less concrete information (and often more flexibility) and games can turn on creative bluffs and traps, which probably explains why I’ve always liked those scenarios.

Race for the Galaxy is game where I think this idea of agency is at the heart of why it is such a great game. You are always looking for creative ways to use the cards you’ve been dealt, reaching for combinations or strategies that will work, then trying them out and seeing what happens. Additionally, those choices have significant effects on how the overall game unfolds. If you go with a military strategy, that increases the number of Settle actions taken in the game in an obvious way, and so changes how the other players feel and choose in a way that simply isn’t true for the majority of purely tactical euros (Tzolk’in, Power Grid, Age of Steam). This feeling of control may age out after a long period of time as the contours of game balance become more fully explored, and the game’s expansions weren’t always handled adroitly, but introducing just the goal chits goes a long way by messing with that sense of balance and extending the creative phase of the game.

I’ve just started working with this idea in the realm of boardgames, so I’m sure my thoughts on it will evolve as I develop it. Maybe it will turn out to be a minor element of most boardgames, where it’s much harder to clearly see than it is in roleplaying, but it strikes me as an important intangible that helps separates the good from the great.

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5 thoughts on “Player Agency in boardgames and RPGs

  1. Slate’s articles usually start off with a good premise which is then ruined by the writer’s lack of interest in understanding the depth of the subject matter at hand and shallow grasp of logic.

    I find agency a difficult word to use in this context. Looking up the possible definitions of agency I see only one that is marginally useful in this context. If you just replace this word with “interaction” it becomes obvious that a user of a book, board game or RPG (or any work of creativity) will be different and no less rich than one or another. If you consider a portrait there isn’t even any abstract symbol manipulation or geometry that your mind is tasked with understanding. There is just light and vision, perhaps some historical context.

    Thanks for posting this I found your analysis of board games interesting.

  2. I agree the word “agency” is incredibly slippery in this context, and in fact may be useless. I’m not sure. But to me, it is a clearly intuitive concept which I’m sort of trying to figure out. There are certainly boardgames where you are a much more passive problem-solver, where you just feel like you’re trying to figure out the problem the game has set up for you and you either get it right or you don’t and the game will go on in more or less the same way regardless. Then some games you feel much more empowered.

    As to relative richness, I certainly would agree that trying to compare RPGs to books to boardgames isn’t particularly productive. But I do think *within* a genre, we can talk about what works and what doesn’t in terms of giving the player that feeling of empowerment and say that some things are better than others.

    I think you may be short-changed the visual arts though 🙂 All art – visual, textual, auditory – is in some part metaphor, right? Even the most representation visual art involves choices made by the artist, choices which affect us as the viewer in some way. Plenty of art is quite abstract and the viewer is left to figure out what it means.

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  4. To me, Agency is caught up with ideas of expressing free will, or in games, i guess taking the game in a direction not clearly demanded by the game designer. In a rather linear first person shooter every encounter is designed in detail, and the player reactions have been considered and controlled. In the macro there is little i can do in the game that has not been planned for and dealt with by the designer. I’ve heard (possibly from Phil Eklund) the term simulation described as a design that sets out the start conditions are systems but lets the players do what they want with them. The actual result of the game play is not controlled that specifically from a design pov, it is simply left up to player agency and decisions. In reality the game is tested for balance and accuracy (if something factual is being simulated) to an extent. But this principle does bear out well in OCS games. I am given the historical situation but I can deviate a long long way from what the designer may ever have imagined for good or bad. This is player agency in games. If i simply play down a preplanned route that the designer intended for me to do so, I am merely rediscovering the designers intentions rather than exercising my own agency. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is a different type of game.

    Interesting article Chris.

  5. Pingback: Fight or Flight – Player Agency & Luck in Video and Board Games | Pixels&CardBoard

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