Oh what potential there is in the unopened box. For my birthday last week (37 years old! Am I the oldest person on Rock Paper Shotgun? Oh my goodness. Maybe.) my girlfriend ordered me an indie board game called CAVE EVIL. It was pretty expensive, but it's a real home-made thing, a unique and beautiful thing. It sits unopened, in an unopened box. When I've played it I'll be sure to tell you about it, but at the moment it sits unopened inside an unopened box.
An unopened box. Can I explain to you why an unopened box excites me so much? Please read on.
THE UNOPENED BOX
It's really weird to review board games. You're pretty much reviewing an experience, and not everyone experiences an experience in the same way. Let's take Monopoly, for example. Monopoly is, in my opinion, a fine board game. I like what it's about and I like how it plays. Played with the proper rules, it never outstays its welcome, and it is VICIOUS. But I think that a lot of how I feel about Monopoly comes from the experiences I've had with the people I've played with.
If you play a game with a bunch of downers, that game will be a downer.
That fact alone makes reviewing games a weird thing. Computer games are different. They are, on the whole, solitary experiences. Board games need people, and people with a good sense of play. It's just not a simple or straight-forward thing.
So, when you look at an unopened box, you have to understand that the potential inside is not really unlimited. It is limited by the people you will play with. If you want to really enjoy a board game, you need to really enjoy people. And you need to have the right people.
So what is the unopened box, really?
CAVE EVIL sits there, unopened. It exists, for now, as an idea of how the experience might be. I've read the reviews and designer interviews. I've watched the promo video.
It is an idea, that's all. I have an idea of how it'll play, and how we'll all laugh as we play it. I can form the shape of the experience in my head. CAVE EVIL itself is only part of it. Part of the idea inside the box is a room in my house. My friends make up big, important parts of the idea. Vodka is in the idea too. I like vodka. I'll probably be drinking vodka when I play CAVE EVIL. It's all inside the box, waiting to come out.
I love ideas. My day job is all about ideas. That's why I love board games.
See, once the box is opened, there's another box inside. The box inside is the game itself. The game, and all its mechanics. Some of the best games are unwrapped and unfolded over time, over multiple plays. It can take a lot of time to reach all the way inside the box and actually grab hold of something. We said the unopened box is an idea, right? What about the open box, then?
This is what makes board games special. A box, with an idea inside. That idea, once encountered, full of other ideas. Innovations and mechanics, all coloured by personal experience.
My love of board games is important to me, as a creative person. Let me explain why.
This notion is key to my creative process. I first encountered it written so plainly in Stephen King's brilliant “On Writing”. Once you know what your thing is about, ask yourself what it's actually about. I'm writing my second feature film at the moment, and I'm constantly asking myself what I'm writing about. And then I ask what I'm actually writing about. I try to keep all of that clear, at every step. My first feature film was about a typical masked slasher-film serial killer and his final victim, but it was actually about misogyny and domestic abuse. There were boxes inside the big box, all of them unopened until the time was right.
Board games excite me on a creative level, because they operate on the same principles. Look at Mall of Horror. It's a board game about zombies, but it's actually about diplomacy and trust. It contains little ideas (rolling hidden dice you can peek at, vital information that is only yours) that support what the game is actually about. That's beautiful, and brilliant.
This image of the unopened box with all the unopened boxes inside is key to the design of board games too, I think. I've been trying to design board games for years now. I've played about with a few ideas, scrapped them, re-visited them – but the process is always this...
THE UNOPENED BOX – The idea of your game as an experience. I'm working on a game called, at the moment, THE EVIL BESIDE ME. It's a horror game, with a crude video nasty feel. I have an idea of it being funny and vicious and borderline offensive. I can visualise how it looks on the table, and the kind of people who are sitting there playing it. I can see the intended audience, I can see them enjoying it, and I can see why they're enjoying it.
Now, let's open the box.
THE OPEN BOX – This is where you have to support your big idea, the experiential side of your idea, with all the cool little unopened boxes that make games amazing. This is, in truth, the difficult part. I have one idea that I think is really strong, a mechanic I've never encountered before. If I get it right, then this will be a little box that gamers can unpack and play around with for quite some time. An idea within the big idea. A hook within the hook. And I think it supports what the game is actually about.
Whenever I tell people I love board games, I think they often put it down to the “game” side of things. “That guy likes to play games”. That's fine. I do like to play games. But all those ideas are what I find so addictive. I like opening all those boxes.
I've finally got to grips with Kaosball. Can it compete with Blood Bowl? (It's nothing like Blood Bowl.)