Andrew Parks is an award-winning game designer and founder of Quixotic Games. He is best known for designing the board games Ideology: The War of Ideas and Camelot Legends, and for co-designing Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean with Jason Hawkins .
Parks and the other designers at Quixotic Games thrive on innovation and collaboration. They specialize in developing themed games and licensed property games. Parks recently contributed an essay on Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation to Family Games: The 100 Best.
Below, Parks talks about game design and the experience of narrative.
Andrew Parks: One of the most important things for a game designer to consider is that games are a form of storytelling. Games allow players to experience a narrative over which they have some degree of control. Some times, as is the case with abstract games, this narrative can be completely imagined by the recipients. For example, when playing a purposefully abstract game like Blokus, the players might surmise that they are participating in some sort of land grab.
In a game centered around a loose story, like Settlers of Catan, players often unconsciously supply the missing details. For example, one player may announce to the others that his people “love to shear sheep” and that is why he always has so much wool. More importantly, as the narrative of the game progresses (such as when one player is dominating the board with the most cities), the other players might envision him as a tyrant with whom it would be immoral to continue trading, and that the robber piece is stealing his ill-gotten gains.
One of the most satisfying ways to create a narrative through gaming, of course, is through role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. If the Dungeon Master is a master of her craft, she will not only create a rich world for her players to dwell in, but will also lay out the framework for a story in which the key choices are made by the players. The most skilled Dungeon Master takes care not to push her players too strongly in one direction, but allows the narrative to flow naturally based on the actions of the characters.
What ties all three of these game types together, then, is the creation of a narrative, whether intended by the designer or imagined by the players. A skilled game designer must therefore envision her game as a type of narrative, and like good narratives, there are certain sequences expected by her players. For example, the start of the game should be about exposition. The players should begin to understand their position in the game world, and to develop their strategies based upon the events occurring during the game’s initial turns. Towards the middle of the game comes the rising action of the narrative, as players struggle with each other to gain the dominant position (or to punish the person in that position). Finally, and this is the hardest thing for a designer, is to effect a satisfying conclusion complete with its own climactic moment. The winner of the game must not be apparent until the very end, and often a surprise strategy will turn the game on its ear, or perhaps the winner will have had to take some great risk in order to stand out during the game’s final turns.
The temptation for a designer, of course, is to force this narrative to take place either through the use of chaos (in which excitement is generated by complete randomness) or through the opposite of chaos, contrivance (in which the game follows a predictable narrative pattern each time). To avoid these two extremes, the designer must oversee hundreds of playtest sessions to ensure that the players are in control of their own destinies (not dictated by chaos or contrivance), and that the game provides enough of a narrative structure that the exciting moments of the game tend to occur when they are supposed to.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.