Why You Should Read Board Games That Tell Stories

Reading Time: 3 minutes
Ignacy Trzewiczek, Board Games That Tell Stories
“This is where you gonna die.” Ignacy Trzewiczek introduces us to Robinson Crusoe at Gen Con 2013. Photo: Jonathan H. Liu

One of the biggest hits last year at Gen Con was Robinson Crusoe, a cooperative game about surviving a cursed island. It sold out within a few hours despite the hefty $80 price tag, and the demo table was packed the rest of the weekend. I did get a chance to play it with fellow GeekDads Dave Banks and John Booth—and it was a special treat to have designer Ignacy Trzewiczek (pronounced “CHEH-vi-check”) teach us the game himself.

“Okay, here is where you gonna die,” Trzewiczek said as he pointed to the turn marker—Round 6. Our goal was to collect enough wood to build a big bonfire to attract the attention of a passing ship by Round 10, but here he was telling us that we wouldn’t even survive that long. As he walked us through the first round, he showed us the first event card—food crates, basically a free source of food if we reached it in time—and apologized: “This is the only good thing that will happen to you this game. I’m sorry.”

Well, it turned out he was wrong—we did survive Round 6—but we had to quit so that others in the long line of gamers could also get a chance to try the game. I did end up buying a copy myself, and so far I’ve only won once—with two handicaps. I’m still trying to get a victory without qualifications.

I’d played Trzewiczek’s 51st State and had heard of Neuroshima Hex, but it was that experience playing Robinson Crusoe that really made me take notice and start paying attention to him. So last winter when I found out about his Kickstarter project to publish a book about his thoughts on game design, I backed it right away. (The paper version, of course.)

The book, Board Games That Tell Stories, has the same title as his blog, and was at first going to be mostly a “best of” collection of 35 blog posts, with some more photos and drawings. Why would anyone pay money for a book of things they could read online? Well, for me, it was partly because I’m still an analog reader and I like paper books, but Trzewiczek was also hoping it was a way for his fans to support him in his blogging and own a souvenir.

But then (of course) there were some stretch goals: if he hit a certain goal, he’d add in stories about publishing Neuroshima Hex and Witchcraft. And then he’d get some guests to contribute. And more guests. And publish a mini-expansion for Robinson Crusoe. And more guests.

By the time the project concluded, it raised nearly $16k—a modest amount compared to many board game projects, but his original goal had only been $1,000. I got my book in the mail a couple weeks ago and just finished reading it. The “extras” section starts about halfway through the book—everything after that was a stretch goal.

Trzewiczek’s stories about game design are fun to read: he’s pretty hilarious and can be both self-aggrandizing and self-effacing. When I read about the way he started testing 51st State, it reminded me of my own improv-based Emperor’s New Clothes: he had cards with names on them, but no actual rules. The idea was to get a story and theme, and figure out mechanics later.

The roster of guest writers is a veritable who’s who of game design: Geoff Engelstein, Vlaada Chvatil, Bruno Cathala, Mike Selinker, Seiji Kanai, Brad Talton, and so many others. It’s a terrific bunch of articles, and it’ll make your board game wish list a whole lot longer. For instance, when Trzewiczek introduces Bruno Cathala, he mentions several of Cathala’s games, and also mentions an upcoming title from Days of Wonder that had not been announced yet. Well, today Days of Wonder announced that title: Five Tribes, a heavier game than what they usually publish, and because of Trzewiczek I’m now eager to try it out. He’s absolutely right that if you have a conversation with him, it’ll end up costing you financially because of all the games you simply have to get.

Whether you read Trzewiczek’s blog or not, the book is a great compilation of some great stories about designing, playing, and publishing games, and I’m really glad I backed the project. If you love board games, you’ll enjoy these tales.

There’s a limited number of the hardcover book left after fulfilling the Kickstarter rewards, and Trzewiczek just announced yesterday that they’re up for sale at the Portal Games site, for $24 USD plus shipping. He said that the ebook version will also be available, though I don’t see it listed just yet. You can read a sample chapter here.

I know Trzewiczek will be attending Gen Con again this year, and now that I know a little more about him, I’m hoping I get another chance to sit down and learn a game from him. I wonder what bad news he’ll give me this time…

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