All this talk of bananas and ice cream, yet not even a mention of banana splits? How is this even possible? Find out in this episode of Tabletop Tastes #10: the importance of A Dynamic Arc in board games.
Arc of the Ingestion
I have a confession to make: I can’t finish bananas. Even though I enjoy peeling back a ripe one and diving in to those initial bites, I almost always hit a wall. At some point I look down at those last few bites and my body suddenly tells me, “Please make it stop.” I completely lose my appetite for the fruit and reluctantly end up tossing the remains in the trash.
Is this true for anybody else? Am I crazy here? How can something start out so enjoyable and prematurely end so unappetizing? My theory is that it must be related to that mushy, potassium-induced sameyness that comes with each bite. That’s right, I think each bite of a banana is too samey.
Let’s contrast this repetitive banana with a nice, dynamic pint of ice cream. Imagine with me a classic pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Or perhaps the incomparable Jeni’s, my personal favorite brand of ice cream. Either way, do you recall how the experience starts out?
First, you pry off the lid. Second, you scrape the thin layer of ice cream from the top of the lid for a small, supple appetizer. Third, you dive into the pint itself. Having just taken the ice cream out of the freezer, you chip away at the rock hard surface for even the tiniest morsels of that frozen goodness. It’s nearly too cold to even taste, but you don’t care, and you simply can’t be bothered with waiting for it to warm up.
But of course, over time the ice cream begins to soften up as you clutch the pint in your cold, hungry fingers. The bites become bigger, softer, and more flavorful. Soon, you’re taste buds are reading at maximum saturation as the temperature hits that beautifully sweet spot.
What’s this? You’re nearing the bottom of the pint? And the edges of the ice cream are melty and liquidized, yet dripping with deliciousness. But you can’t allow the pint to get too melty! No, time is of the essence, and this ice cream is ripe for the finishing. What once was a slow, melodic waltz become a frenzying race to consume every last bite before it becomes too much of a drink. Downward you go! Digging, scraping, and slurping until finally… it is finished. You’ve just completed a delectably satisfying arc of the pint.
Do you now see the difference between the banana and the pint of ice cream? One is excruciatingly unchanging in its consumption, presenting nothing new or exciting or compelling to bring you back for another bite. The other is dynamically satisfying in its consumptive journey, ramping up slowly, reaching a peak of perfection, then urging you beyond your stomach’s limitations in a downhill rush to the finish.
Arc of the Play
In this sense, the best board games are also like pints of ice cream, containing a dynamic and engaging arc. Meanwhile, the games that are like bananas usually get the big boot from my collection.
One big banana game that I played in 2019 was Dead Man’s Cabal. While it had interesting decisions and an eye-catching production, the biggest knock against our experience with it was simply how samey every round felt. The central goal is to pick up and place out skulls that line up and meet the requirements of a point card. There are of course other actions you can take and secondary points you can pursue, but nothing felt evolving. We couldn’t get ourselves to play another game after our first go, as the cycle of using skulls to get point cards grew stale within a single play.
One of the masters of dynamic arcs is Reiner Knizia. Typically, his games start out wide open. “Place a tile anywhere, there are loads of good options!” “Play any card from your hand, it’s hard to choose wrong!” Yet as the tiles or cards start going out, you begin to see long-term strategies and short-term opportunities emerging for each player. Like the curling liquid of the melting ice cream against the walls of the pint container, things start to get even more deliciously interesting. Tile chains gather momentum, card types gain purpose, and decisions grow in importance. Players never have enough actions that they desperately wish they could take on their turns, and they must clench their butt cheeks between turns as they pray that no opponent swoops in and snatches away the next golden opportunity. In this sense, Reiner is like the Ben & Jerry’s of the board game industry. His pints of play are consistently satisfying and evolvingly interesting from start to finish.
Another banana I recently discovered was Raiders of the North Sea. While the game has a novel mechanism of placing a worker and picking up a worker to take your actions, this loop grew old for me over its 80 minutes of play. Over the course of the game, players see themselves reaching more expensive action spaces and thereby raking in more points and resources. But a ramp up in cost, points, and resources is like a bump in a sidewalk… hardly noticeable to the average cyclist who is looking for a thrill. These superficial changes do little to differentiate the rounds of play.
Contrast this viking placement game to another one, A Feast for Odin. Uwe Rosenberg’s sprawling viking Euro starts players off with something like negative 60 points on their personal boards that they must cover up over the course of the game. The opening round starts off slow and methodical, with players earning a small handful of tiny tiles to help them cover up the first of many spaces on their boards. Ironically, early game is often the best time to acquire another player board with even more negative points that must be covered.
As the rounds march onward, players gain more vikings to spend on stronger and more numerous action spaces. Animals, income, and bonuses have a snowball effect that helps players to accelerate their economy. When the final round nears, the game becomes a race to cover every negative point that you’ve neglected the entire game as you greedily pursued the many other dangling carrots. This arc that starts with precarious investments and baby step turns, snowballs into huge gains of tiles and profitable tile arrangements, and concludes with a race to maximize points and cover nasty spaces is an arc that keeps this relatively solitaire game dynamic and interesting throughout.
Designed with the Arc in Mind
From a design perspective, lack of a dynamic arc is one of the most consistent problems I’ve seen in some of my prototypes and other designers’ prototypes. It can be easy to get lost in the minor problems, suggestions, and improvements amid a playtesting session. But smooth gameplay and novel mechanisms can only carry a design so far. I recently found myself offering up a bunch of random ideas after a playtesting another person’s design. But toward the end of the discussion, I took a step back from my minor complaints and suddenly realized that they were all part of a bigger problem: a missing game arc. If the designer could stay focused on giving the game a satisfying arc, then the obvious changes and best ideas would likely fall into place.
Perhaps the most visible form of a gameplay arc is an engine builder. If players can feel their actions and choices are gaining momentum and value, then their engagement with game tends to grow in parallel to this progress. Yet, like the countless flavors of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, there are plenty of other ways to give a game a dynamic arc:
- A race where the stakes ramp up as the finish line nears
- An evolving game board or player area where a network sprawls outward or the opportunities narrow inward
- The formation of shaky alliances to bring down the dominant leader
- The development of bitter rivals in competition for dwindling resources
- The unfolding of secrets and uncovering of information in a game of deduction
- Containing multiple acts in a single game
The possibilities go on yet the pattern for success is the same. If the turns or rounds all feel roughly the same, then you have yourself a boring banana. Good luck pitting that against a dynamic pint of ice cream. Of course, if I’m hungry enough and the bland samey food is quite filling, then you might catch me eating it anyway.
Continue on to Tabletop Tastes #11: Filling Turns
More killer games with a dynamic arc:
Satisfying Engine Builders: Roll for the Galaxy, Race for the Galaxy, Viticulture, Great Western Trail, Sidereal Confluence, Concordia, Dice Forge, Taverns of Tiefenthal
Evolving Game Board: Crokinole, Carcassonne, Tigris & Euphrates, Babylonia, Through the Desert, Brass: Birmingham, Age of Steam, Lords of Vegas, Ethnos, Bus, Condottiere, Blitzkrieg!,
Raising Stakes: Inis, Downforce, Camel Up, Pandemic, Undaunted: Normandy, New York Zoo. Scape Goat, The Quest for El Dorado, Men at Work, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion, The Estates, Last Bastion
Multi-Act Games: Blue Lagoon, For Sale, Mysterium, Insider, A Fake Artist Goes to New York
Evolving Player Areas: Patchwork, My City, Curious Cargo, Wingspan, Isle of Skye, Azul, Sagrada, Castles of Burgundy
Unfolding Secrets & Uncovering Information: The Search for Planet X, Bristol 1350, Cryptid, Loot of Lima, Treasure Island, Deception: Murder in Hong Kong
Forming of Alliances and Rivalries: Root, Pax Pamir (Second Edition), Cosmic Encounter, Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy, The King is Dead
What are your favorite games with a dynamic arc?
Article written by Nick Murray. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!