Many of the best board games include some elements of story to them — it’s part of what makes us care about the game. It’s our motivation, so to speak. Granted, there are abstract strategy games, but even some of those have some vague notion of a story: as abstract as chess is, there’s still a king and queen and a bunch of characters on the board.
Stories also make for more memorable gaming experiences. If you feel that you’re playing a character in a game rather than just moving a little piece around on the table, then you’re more invested in how things turn out, and more likely to keep thinking about the game long after you play it. (Just ask any RPG fan.)
Here are a few games that rely on the power of story and storytelling. I’ve included two that are currently funding on Kickstarter, Machine of Death and The Card Game of Oz, and then a brief update about Storm Hollow (formerly known as Story Realms).
In 2010, a bunch of writers, inspired by an idea from Dinosaur Comics, published an anthology of stories about a machine that can predict, with 100% accuracy, how you will die. I heard about Machine of Death because they were running a campaign to have as many people as possible buy the book on October 26 (which I did), hoping to get to Amazon’s #1 spot for just one day. The ebook is now available for free, though you can still order dead-tree copies if you like.
Here’s the gist of it: the machine pricks you with a needle to draw a drop of blood, and then spits out a little card with a short phrase on it. It doesn’t tell you when you’ll die, or what exactly it means, but it’s guaranteed that (after the fact) it will all make sense. Some people try to avoid their fates, only to find out that it didn’t mean quite what they thought. On the other hand, some people felt liberated: “There’s no reason not to go skydiving if you know your sliver of paper says BURIED ALIVE.” That one little idea sparked off a lot of really interesting stories — enough to fill a second book, This Is How You Die, due out this July.
And now, there’s also a game.
Machine of Death: The Game of Creative Assassination casts you in the role of an assassin. But now that the MOD exists, you can’t just rely on traditional methods like guns and knives and poison. If the target’s card says “armadillo” and you try to just take them out with a sniper rifle, you know it won’t work for some reason or other. Instead, you’ll need to be creative with the items at your disposal, figuring out how to take out your target in a way that’s consistent with their death prediction.
The Kickstarter page doesn’t have a ton in the way of exact rules, but it looks to be a silly game that’s mostly storytelling with some specific restrictions, some die-rolling, and a time limit. It also hit its funding goal within the first day, doubled it by the second, and is steamrolling through stretch goals. As David Malki put it in his video update on Day 3, he’s going to have to rethink shipping because there are so many extras already that they aren’t going to fit in the box they had planned to use … “but that’s a good problem to have.” Here I might suggest a new MOD card: “UNEXPECTED KICKSTARTER SUCCESS.”
I don’t imagine it’ll be a very deep game, but it does look extremely funny if you have a morbid sense of humor, and I’ve already pledged for a copy. If you liked the Machine of Death book, chances are you’ll enjoy this, too.
Jim O’Connor has been working on his card game for over a decade, with a couple of breaks in the middle due to some setbacks and loss of funding. But with the advent of Kickstarter, he signed a deal with Game Salute and has now launched The Card Game of Oz.
The game uses what O’Connor calls the Storyline Game System, and many of his mechanics are tied to specific story elements. That is, he starts with the story itself, selects an element, and then creates a mechanic based on that element, rather than starting with a mechanic and then looking for something that fits. His hope is to expand the Storyline Game System to other properties in the future: other books or even movie or TV series.
But first, let’s stick with Oz. The first game is based on the first book, of course: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The game includes all of the major characters: Dorothy, Toto, the lion, scarecrow, and tin man, the wicked witch, Glinda the good witch, Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. There are also a host of supporting characters, like mice, winged monkeys, crows, and more.
You play as Authors, each rewriting L. Frank Baum’s classic tales to your own tastes — but you’re also competing to have the most “Vitality Points” among all of your characters by the time the game ends. You play cards and take actions by spending “Story Points,” which you earn by rolling dice. The more characters you have in play, the more dice you get to roll; plus, you can discard cards from your hand to roll extra dice.
Each of you can play characters to your side of the story line, and move characters from location to location. Characters have a base number of Vitality Points, but this can be modified based on their location, equipment, and other effects. For instance, the field of poppies saps vitality from most characters, while the Kansas farm gives bonus vitality to Henry, Em, and Dorothy. Some characters also interact with each other — the cowardly lion is worth fewer points when he’s with other characters, while the Wicked Witch of the West decreases the vitality of other good characters at the same location.
Meanwhile, there are various effects you can play on each other, or you can swap out Locations with new ones from the deck. Locations can provide their own bonuses or drawbacks. Emerald City locations cost more to move into unless you’re wearing green glass spectacles; water locations are bad for the Tin Man and deadly for the Wicked Witch. When you move a major (“Prime”) character to the end of the story line, the game ends, and you score points for all of the characters you have in play.
I got to try out a demo version of the game. I’ve only gotten to try a two-player game so far, but it’s interesting and I’m hoping to try it with three or four soon. Thematically, I would say it doesn’t really feel so much like you’re an author writing a story, so much as playing around with characters within this story, trying to get them to the ideal locations. The artwork on the cards is beautiful, and most of the cards and card effects make sense with what’s going on in the story.
There is, of course, a lot of reading involved, since there are so many different types of cards, each with their own effects. In fact, there are even multiple versions of some of the characters, so at times you may have to decide which version you’ll want to put into play. For gamers who don’t like “cards with words,” this is probably not an idea game.
But if you like games based on stories, check out the Card Game of Oz Kickstarter page. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Oz itself, you might like the gameplay. (I played this with a friend who said he hates The Wizard of Oz but still thought the game was promising nonetheless.)
Finally, a quick update about Storm Hollow. You might not recognize the name, because when we covered the Kickstarter campaign last a it went by the name Story Realms. However, due to a trademark dispute, the team made the tough decision last month to change the branding. You can read more here or listen to this interview with Angie Hickman Newnham on Funding the Dream. The short story is: although they don’t think they’re in violation of a trademark, a legal battle could delay the game for several years, so Escapade Games changed the title in order to move on with production of the game.
Storm Hollow is named after the particular realm for the first game, with the broader subtitle “A Storyboard Game.” The name hints at the type of gameplay: it’s not a straight role-playing or storytelling game, but it’s also not just a board game. There are elements of both types of games, but story is definitely central to the game. If future games are produced, they will also be branded as “A Storyboard Game” to tie them together.
If you didn’t back the project, then you may not have seen the more recent updates, which include some lovely artwork of specific characters and locations in Storm Hollow. Hop over to the updates page to see more! (Also, Storm Hollow is available for pre-order from Game Salute.)