Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Story in Board Games: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Imagine finding yourself in the front foyer of what is probably a haunted mansion with a few of your closest friends. There's no way out, since the front door is locked (naturally).  You begin to explore the house, discovering one new room at a time.  You might run into some unexpected circumstances, halting your exploration temporarily, or find some items that might be useful to you later.

Suddenly, something strange begins to happen.  Whatever was haunting the house makes itself known, and even worse, you find that one of your friends has betrayed you and is on its side! (Or, perhaps it is you who does the betraying!) Now it's an us-against-them game of survival where only one side can win.

This is the narrative behind the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.  I played it earlier this week with a group of three others based on hearing that it did a decent job of setting up a non-linear narrative.  I wanted to observe how well the game mechanics and events contributed to a unique story, and to see whether I thought the game represented anything close to true interactive storytelling.

The game was amusing enough. I liked the fact that the layout of the house would always be different based on how the room tiles were 'discovered.'  The haunt phase of the game started at a random point, and there were about 50 haunt scenarios that you could end up playing.  Which haunt was chosen depended on certain state in the game, such as the last Omen card that was played.  Two books - one for the traitor, one for the heroes - gave background narrative to the haunt as well as the rules of how it would work.

Despite these nice narrative additions, the game mechanics still felt fairly disconnected from the story.  Cards in the game had their own little story bits that were completely independent from the overall story (for example, the Event cards contained isolated 'horror genre tropes' as one fellow player described it).  Maybe we were unlucky, but the connection between the current state of the game and the haunt we played was extremely minimal and almost immediately forgotten.  Game play could not affect the haunt's story in any way more complex than having a win scenario and a lose scenario (and even those weren't all that deep or interesting).

Basically, the whole story thing ended up being underwhelming.

This really makes me wonder: are there any board games that allow players to make non-obvious choices that meaningfully affect the game's narrative, giving an interactive storytelling experience? The only example I can think of is the Dungeons and Dragons genre of role playing games, where the dungeon master acts as a storytelling engine, crafting unique narratives within the rules of the current game.

It makes me wonder whether the only way to achieve interactive storytelling with a board game is to have a storytelling engine, either human or computer.  Although computer-based engines aren't nearly as good as human storytellers, I think it could be interesting to craft a game that used a mobile device to mediate a truly interactive story experience.  Otherwise, without a human mediator, I'm not sure how easy it would be to take the idea of story in board games a step further.


Eugenia said...

I strongly recommend playing "Pandemic", a game where you work with your team to try to stop a disease from spreading across the world. It's one of the best games I've played.

Gail Carmichael said...

I have played it, and I do like it! :D

Oli said...

Ironically there's a series of flash-based webgames by the same name where your objective (as playing the virus) is to infect and kill off the whole world. XD

Unknown said...

Late, late comment here, but wondering if you ever discovered "Tales of the Arabian Nights" from Z-Manfred Games, and if it answered your question re: game story telling

Gail Carmichael said...

Not sure; haven't played it yet in any case.

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