Thursday, July 5, 2012

Based on a True Story

Historical themes have been a part of games for some time.  They run the gamut from detailed simulations to themes that are "pasted-on" superficially in order to make the rules more memorable.

It is interesting, once again, to compare the medium to the film industry, where historical themes also turn up in a variety of ways.  In movie theaters, we can, for example, watch a documentary that is often very true to life.  Then there are the films that are based on a true story.  And finally, there are those that  can only claim to be "inspired by a true story."

In board game design, war games have the most similarity to documentaries.  Their main purpose is to reenact a particular battle or war, and the details are important, even if it means pages of rules to remember.

Then there are Euro games which try to capture the flavor of a particular historical setting, such as building up the island of Puerto Rico or the routes of Germany's early horse-drawn postal service.  Most Euros, however, abstract the theme to such a degree, that the historical content would fall into the "inspired by a true story" category.

Is this such a bad thing?

I've been inspired by historical themes for the past several years in my own game designs. Even when I begin a design with a mechanism, I try to bring the theme into it as soon as possible in order to help me find the game that should surround that mechanism. I also enjoy researching a topic, especially one that I do not yet know much about. And, of course, traveling helps, as I am always interested in learning the history behind the places I visit.

But when it comes time to try to design a board game around these themes, I fall squarely in the "German style" camp, and find that I must abstract much of the history in order to make it accessible as a game. It is probably not unlike the screenwriter who tells an interesting story which includes facts from actual events, but also takes artistic license to help it fit the format and provide for a good cinematic experience.

As long as one goes into the cinema with the knowledge that this is a theatrical version of true events, I usually do not see a problem with this.  If the story is told well, in fact, I usually want to research the true story, to find out what really happened.  And sometimes, I am surprised to learn which of the facts were true, especially those that I was sure were only added for dramatic impact.

This should be the goal for historical themes in board games.  They can--and must--be abstracted, but a good dose of real history included in the mix can arouse the curiosity of the players, and perhaps they will seek out the rest of the story later.  A game does not have to be educational in order to encourage further exploration and education.

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