Sunday, July 17, 2011

What makes a game “Epic”?

(This originally appeared in "Against the Odds" Magazine.)

While I don't believe a game designer can deliberately set out to design a "great" game, I DO believe a designer can set out to create an “epic” game, though this effort is just as subject to failure as any other game design.

I'm interested here in game designs that most players would call "epic", not in an individual play of a game that might be regarded as epic. I've played and refereed epic adventures of First Edition AD&D, but I wouldn't call D&D an epic game.

"Define:epic" at Google gives this first definition: "very imposing or impressive; surpassing the ordinary (especially in size or scale); 'an epic voyage'; 'of heroic proportions'; 'heroic sculpture.'"

Another dictionary meaning: "heroic; majestic; impressively great".

In common among these definitions is feeling, rather than logic. Games "feel" epic--they emotionally involve the player. But once again, D&D emotionally involves the player yet is not an epic game, though there can be epic adventures. There's more than just emotional involvement.

Any and all definitions of anything, of any length, can be picked apart. As I am interested in characteristics that define an “epic game”, my list must be fairly detailed, hence open to even more nit-picking. Nonetheless, I’m going to take a stab at it. In the course of the discussion we’ll see some of the things designers can try to do to create an epic game.

I've settled on a number of characteristics that can be divided into three categories: 1) scope, 2) player commitment, 3) tension and memorability. I'll briefly describe the characteristics, then talk about them in more detail with some examples. Epic games won’t necessarily have every characteristic. That’s the flaw of any detailed definition.

1) Scope
• Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract
• Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and many generations
• Non-mundane theme
• Story "arc" reflecting great changes

2) Player commitment
• Depth of gameplay including high replayability
• Sheer length or complexity (or both)

3) Tension and memorability
• The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end-of-game gameplay feels very different from the beginning
• Uncertainty about who's winning
• Asymmetry
• The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)

1) Scope

Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract
"Sweep of history" games that involve many centuries and countries or the world, such as Britannia, Italia, History of the World, and 7 Ages, are generally regarded as epic. So, too, is Civilization, both the original boardgame that preceded the computer games and the computer games. Yet other games with big scopes are not epic, for example Vinci and Risk, I think because they feel so abstract that the “real world” no longer feels present. A short game with the same subject might not feel epic: for example, I’ve designed a 90 minute version of Britannia (admittedly leaving out the Roman conquest) that is unlikely to feel epic to most players.

Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and many generations
Some Napoleonic games might qualify here, perhaps even some American Civil War games. War of the Ring and Twilight Imperium qualify, even though the struggle is not “real”;
it can be fictional, as long as players suspend their disbelief and adopt the fiction. In all cases these are great “slugfests”.

Non-mundane theme
You’re not likely to regard a game about selling real estate as epic (Monopoly!). Nor a game about building a house. Nor a game about eating fish. Many people expect “epic story elements” from an epic game, such as becoming king or saving the world.

Story "arc" reflecting great changes
I don’t think a great story is necessary to an epic game, and certainly many games with great stories are not epic. Yet in some epic games, the game "story", what it represents, reflects major changes over time, a saga with beginning, middle, and end, so that the situation at the end of the game is very different from the beginning, almost like it's a different world. To use Britannia as an example, early in the game most players vainly try to fight off, or accommodate, the Roman conquest. Late in the game players are fighting to determine who will be king of England, a very different story.

2) Player commitment

Depth of gameplay including high replayability
This is clearly open to differing opinions about depth of gameplay. This is another case where Vinci and Risk fail my definition, as there is little depth to their gameplay. But you could argue the same thing about History of the World.

Sheer length or complexity (or both)
Civilization is one of the most widely acknowledged epic games. Can you have a two hour Civ game and not lose the epic feel? Many would say "no". Can you drastically simplify what the players do without losing the epic feel? Hard to say. It seems that length, rather than complexity, is part of the mystique of the game.

An epic game need not be both very long and very complex. I’d cite Britannia-like games here, as Britannia is lengthy but not complex. Italia is considerably more complex, though derived from Britannia.

But an epic game will very likely be at least one or the other, very long or very complex.

Oddly enough, often this means no role assumption is involved!
In role-assumption games, you can conceive yourself as taking on the specific role of an individual person. For example, you might be a squad leader, or a castle builder. It’s too much like something you might do in the real world. Yet in many epic games you cannot name a specific individual that you play, at best you might take on the roles of a series of individuals (kings, presidents, generals). Perhaps a game (as opposed to a D&D adventure) feels more epic for the very reason that you cannot identify with one (mortal) person.

In many epic games you don’t even play just one nation, but several. You have an “omnipresent” (though not omnipotent or omniscient) point of view.

3) Tension and memorability

In the following list of characteristics related to tension and memorability, we might keep in mind a trait of many popular video games, “immersiveness”. Yet a game can be immersive without being epic... Immersion: “state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption.”

The gameplay reflects major changes over time, end of game gameplay feels very different from the beginning.
Another way to put this, is by the time you get to the end of the game, it seems very different from the game you were playing in the beginning. “Sweep” games tend to feel this way. In Britannia, for example, in the beginning most players are trying to survive the Roman conquest with a healthy nation, yet give the Roman some trouble. At the end, all are concentrating on who will be king of England, and often trying to kill opposing candidates. These require quite different kinds of strategies. In History of the World, players begin in a relatively small area, but by the end are acting all over the world.

Further, what was an important and useful move early in the game might be a weak, poor move by the end. That is, there may be an increase in “power” and scope of the things the player can do.

Uncertainty about who's winning
If you certainly know who's winning at a particular time, a multiplayer game becomes subject to all kinds of defects such as kingmaking and sandbagging. This tends to annoy players and reduce tension, and may be another downfall of Risk and Vinci.

If it’s a two-player game and one player is obviously winning, the other will probably resign/surrender–end of game, no epic provided. A long, drawn-out struggle in chess might be called “epic”, but the game itself is not.

Point games can be a problem. The plastic Hasbro version of History of the World added secret scoring bonuses in an attempt to obscure who is in the lead. In Britannia the nations and colors score at different rates, at different times, so it’s never quite clear even to experts who is in the lead, by how much, until the game ends.

In asymmetric games, each player has a different starting position/situation. The opposite is symmetric, a common characteristic of “Euro” style games, where each player starts with an identical position. Abstract games tend to be symmetric, and tend not to feel epic. Is chess an epic game? I don’t think so.

Most epic games are historical or pseudo-historical, and history is rarely symmetric. So we may only be seeing a symptom, not a cause, in this characteristic.

The game engenders "gaming stories" that you remember fondly and retell with pleasure (or chagrin!)
Some games result in memorable sessions, some do not. They are more than games, they are “experiences”. This goes back to the idea of “immersion”, of buying into the game. It leaves out most “Euro” games, which tend to be somehow inconsequential–games, not experiences.

This is certainly a characteristic of “great” games, and is sometimes a characteristic of “epic” games.

My thanks to commenters about the meaning of “epic game” on Boardgamegeek, Board Game Designers Forum, and various Britannia forums, especially Richard Young.

1 comment:

Nate Scheidler, Chicago Game Design Group said...

That's a nice read. I particularly agree with the note in #3 about escalation. I think the increase in player power is key to player involvement... the sense that the conflict can swing for and against you at any time as the result of a well-timed application of your newfound capabilities. The review of the game's evolution and mentions on particularly critical moves reinforce what made the game an "epic" experience for the players.