Last week I told you I was going to do a session report of the new Games Workshop game The Horus Heresy: Betrayal At Calth. In the process of writing that session report – the first session report I've ever done as part of this column – I realised that I don't really know how to write a session report. And now I've said “session report” about a million times. So today, before I lay my session report upon you next week, an analysis of the mysterious beast we call the board game session report. A million and two now.
ANALYSIS OF A SESSION REPORT
What is a session report, exactly? In board gaming, we understand it as the recounting of one playthrough of a board game. It's a once-through, from start to finish. Or maybe it's a piece that recounts one sitting of a game's campaign. All in all, it's a one-and-done - one session, re-told.
Fundamentally, a session report is a story. Some of the best session reports I've ever read have been, fittingly, in the pages of Games Workshop's White Dwarf magazine. There they would take a good number of pages to tell the story of one battle between their Warhammer Fantasy or Warhammer 40K armies, with photographs and illustrations and lots of box-outs adding additional detail or colour. These Games Workshop session reports are lavish affairs – often the highlight of any issue of that magazine back in the day.
Modern times bring us to websites like boardgamegeek, where board gamers come together to share reviews, strategies and complaints about Kickstarter. And on boardgamegeek you'll find tons of session reports. It might be some guy from Germany talking about a game of Agricola he played with the rest of his family. It might be some guy going on for about fifty paragraphs about some obscure wargame that takes a month to play. Or it might be a woman keen to tell the story of her triumph in a game of Spartacus. Sometimes you'll see comments saying things like “This isn't a session report.” Or maybe “This is more like a review than a session report.”
So how do you properly write a session report? When is it not a session report? When does it not properly stack up?
In the process of working up my Betrayal At Calth session report, I realised that I was sometimes slipping into a lot of talk about game mechanics. And then I'd be all like “OH NO, THIS IS BECOMING A REVIEW!” and had to refocus. In truth, I was keen to keep a tight hold on story. Story, story, story. Which meant trying to clear all that fuss about mechanics and rules away and zeroing in on how I'd recount the game to someone who has no interest in that stuff.
But when talking about board games, how do you separate the rules from the story? Let's take Cluedo/Clue as an example. (I detest Cluedo, by the way.) If I was to tell you about some game of Cluedo I played last night, I might say something like this...
“Well, this guy had been murdered. So we all started moving around the house looking for clues. I wanted to go into the kitchen, but I couldn't reach it in my first roll of the dice. So--”
Right, that's me in rules now. So what? Do I explain about the dice rolling for movement? Should I then explain about the secret passages? How long should I talk about the rules for? Do they matter to the story of the game?
“I went into the kitchen, and I wanted to make a couple of suggestions in there. But then someone suggested I might be the killer, and I was moved to the lounge. Because when someone makes a suggestion about you, you get moved to the room they're in and-”
I'm back in rules. I'm BACK IN RULES AGAIN. So maybe that isn't such a bad thing. Maybe, when talking about Cluedo, there's so little story that a true session report for that game is very rules-heavy. Because – look at it – without those weird rules that make everything tick, Cluedo isn't anything at all. So to tell the story, you need to tell the rules. To explain each swing and twist of the tale, you need to talk about the mechanic that causes the swing.
A game like Betrayal At Calth is different.
Once you're inside a scenario of Betrayal At Calth, with that little bit of backstory and colour, you can easily avoid any talk about specific mechanics. Whenever I found myself talking about “activations” or “line of sight”, I pulled myself back from it. The mechanics of the game are there to enable the story. They are not the story itself. You don't have to talk about line of sight rules to explain that a Space Marine can see his enemy. You don't have to explain how the movement rules work to explain that a Space Marine ran and slid into cover.
This type of session report should be different. It should be all story, with any rules talk kept to very rare occasions.
So next week, for Cardboard Children's first ever session report, you'll be reading something that's far more like a story. We'll have photographs, and alternating viewpoints. It won't be the style of session report that will work for everything, but hey – I have no plans to do a session report for Cluedo. But I do want to get this kind of thing right, because I think that when a game tells a great story, it's only right that you recount that story respectfully.
So, what is a session report to you? What do you want to see in one? And when is it not one?
Why is life so difficult?