There seems to be a backlash against video games that feature detailed graphics and complex mechanics, but have extremely linear and passive story-lines. Board games can suffer the same fate; snazzy art, long rulebooks and expensive components are not the most important elements to an awesome board game experience. To me the very best board games have relatively simple rules, but the complex choices and interactions aren’t necessarily obvious until you actually play it a few times. This is called “emergent gameplay” and yes, I’m talking about you, Cosmic Encounter. But beyond subtle complexity of mechanics is something even better than emergent gameplay, and it’s something that emergent gameplay can lead to: emergent narrative.
My definition of emergent narrative: Unique stories that develop naturally during gameplay, and are not imposed by the theme or objective.
The more open-ended a game is, the more opportunities players have to explore the mechanics (and interact with each other) in unique and unexpected ways. Different people will develop very different playstyles, thus leading to a story landscape of infinite possibilities. It’s almost like each time you play these games, you are writing a new epic movie featuring tough choices and sacrifice, trust, and retribution. My favorite games always feature an extended post-game discussion, and many of the very best games can even lead to special moments that dwell in our memories just as vividly as any great movie scene or classic sports play. Games featuring a linear track that players have to move around to reach a set goal are not very interesting to me; I personally prefer games where the path is more unclear; where every decision each player makes has immediate ripple effects that may not ever be fully understood until long after the game is over. In other words, I want my games to be more like real life.
Take for example, the following rules primer to Chaosmos:
Players start the game with a hand of cards that each perform a unique function. Each of the 10 planets holds caches of other cards, and you can land on them and drop off cards or take new cards.
Sounds pretty straight forward, right? If there were no objective at all then it would be a pretty useless game. So we add an objective, but a very distant one: Your goal is to have a particular card in your hand “The Ovoid” at the end of the game (when all players have finished their final turn). So now players have an end goal, but there’s still not a lot of information about what to do on your turn. In addition, let’s add a small constraint:
Your hand limit is 7 cards.
Since all players are moving about the same board, now all of a sudden it matters which cards are left behind on which planets and when. You aren’t just managing your hand, you are also influencing the hands of your opponents and the cards they discover on each planet. Different players may want different cards, depending on their strategies, and that may naturally lead to players battling over cards and the envelopes that contain them. Players may begin to trade with each other. Players will begin to lie to each other about where certain cards are located. Since all players have the same goal, eventually conflict of some sort will develop, and it will develop totally differently based on how their personalities and strategies interact. This emergent gameplay leads to unique moments, and (for the thematically-minded players) unique stories. That’s emergent narrative, and, to me, it’s the basis for a great board game.