I’ve recently come to realize that I don’t really care to play most board games more than a handful of times. It’s something I’ve spent a bit of time mulling over, because I feel like a board game is the kind of thing I should really enjoy, but it very rarely is after the first couple of playthroughs.
I really like to leave my personal touch on a game when I play it. I like to really dive deep in a game and own, customize, and play a strategy. I get this in a minis game– my minis are, at the very least, chosen by me strategically before I start the game, and to a greater extent they have customized assembly and paint schemes to match my interests. Even if I didn’t paint or assemble them myself, they’re still unique to me. I’m reminded of this while I play Fallout. My settlements are incredibly bare-bones, nowhere near the lavish affairs Bel spent hours working on. I spent hours today pursuing a silencer for my weapon, seeking out new places to explore simply to find the components necessary to put it together. I’m playing a stealthy sharpshooter (quelle surprise), and I have been since the very start of the game.
I pursued a specific in-game reward to supplement the strategy I’d chosen from the very start. It’s analogous to selecting a particular deployment zone or chasing a particular objective in a game of Infinity, or choosing a particular perk as I level up in an RPG. I’m able to choose what I want to do strategically before I play, and the tactical choices I make as I go along align with that strategy (or adapt it to a changing situation).
It’s a thing I seek out in games, especially ones without a strong narrative to keep me interested. I want to be able to express myself from the start, and make decisions based on a strategic choice I made, rather than making purely tactical decisions. In most board games, I don’t get this choice. The board is set up to a particular exacting static standard, and either starting positions are doled out randomly (as in Agricola) or are undifferentiated (many other games). Most of the time, I don’t get to pick a long-term strategy before the game begins. There are a few games that let me do this, but they’re extremely rare (and often picking that strategy is a minigame itself, as in Galaxy Truckers).
Most of the choices to be made are tactical choices, not strategic ones, and there’s very little personalization available when those are the only choices you’re making. There’s “selecting the optimal tactic”, which can vary somewhat based on your ability to execute, but it’s not really a form of self-expression, or doesn’t feel like one to me. It’s an optimization game rather than a customization one. What I like about strategic choices is that they give me the opportunity to alter the optimal tactical choices over the course of the game according to preferences that I’ve set beforehand. I have made a choice to have an aggressive Lieutenant in Infinity with a support network in the list, and so I make the choice in the game to play forward and daring with my Lieutenant. Alternately, I’ve chosen a vulnerable lieutenant, who I need to hide during the game and potentially take pains to protect. My overall strategic choices change the valuation of my tactical choices, so the optimal course in any situation has been customized by me.
That layer of strategic customization makes the game deeper and richer for me, and can make two otherwise identical matches feel very different. In most board games I’ve played, if you were to completely remove randomness in two consecutive games; play twice with the same die results and same card draws, you’d have an incredibly boring second game. There’s no change you could make (other than potentially a different tactical choice, if you played the first game suboptimally) that would change the outcome. By comparison, if I can alter my strategy at the start of the game, I could have absolutely identical variables elsewhere and the importance of those variables would change. I can play the same minis game on the same terrain (and honestly, could have the same exact die rolls) and if I came into it with a different list it would be a wholly different experience.
I’m really interested in a board game that gives me that kind of strategic depth. I find that most “strategy” board games are actually tactics games, with very little strategy involved. You might be thinking multiple turns ahead, but you’re still mostly reacting to the board, not planning. I’ve played a few that touch on it, some of the Arkham games, City of Thieves, and to some extent the Shadowrun board game, where you select a character which changes your approach, but these tend to be fairly insignificant choices in the long run (Arkham games being something of an exception here).
Returning to Fallout 4 (look, I’m playing a lot of this game), it’s really exciting to me that the various people I know can take extremely different strategic approaches– make strikingly different characters– and not only have a very different set of experiences in the same game, but all be equally effective. As a stealthy sharpshooter, I’ve mostly eschewed my power armor, using it only when stealth isn’t an option. I’m pretty sure Bel and Kodra are wearing theirs constantly. Some of my friends are playing melee characters, others are playing characters who are looking for the biggest guns possible. All of us are looking for different things but are all supported by the game. Bel has made his mark by tearing down his entire starting settlement and building anew; Kodra has made his mark repeatedly, with a metal bat. I make my mark once, with an exquisitely crafted implement, and once is enough.
Strategy is, for me, a form of creative self-expression. It’s something I’ve kind-of known for a long time, but the implications are a lot more significant than I’d realized. It helps me better understand why I don’t like certain games and why I like other games that are ostensibly very similar. It helps me make better decisions, and it’s nice to be able to put words to a feeling.