Flavor Text

The last few weeks have been a blur in gaming, mostly centered around opening up, bagging, and playing the Kickstarter edition of Near and Far by Red Raven Games. I plan to talk more about the game in another blog post, once I have a few more plays in, but spoiler alert — I really love this game.img_2986

Story telling games have always fascinated me, perhaps from my love of choose your own adventure books and RPGs as a young man. Above and Below, Red Raven’s earlier attempt at a world building story telling game, was a big hit with me and my two sons, and in all honesty, winning was in second place to exploring the underground in that game.

I had yet to bring my wife into the fantastical world of Red Raven Games and Ryan Laukat’s whimsical art, so I thought Islebound would be a good place to start. Islebound is a 2016 release where players sail ships around a modular board conquering and/or negotiating treaties with towns and ports, all in an effort to score journey points along the way.  I was excited to introduce her to a mechanic that I really like in Red Raven’s last three games.

The thing that I like about this “trilogy” of games (Above and Below, Islebound, and Near and Far) is that each one has story elements built in, albeit in different ways.  If the games had been published in order from Islebound to Near and Far, you might even say that there was a bit of an advancement in the way Laukat implements the story mechanic. In Islebound, the story elements are mainly found in the “troubadour” cards (as my wife calls them) and “event” cards. These cards, found on the side board, allow you to increase your renown and influence by meeting certain objectives, and on each one is a little story about why you need to take that action or about the reward you will get.

Laukat took that concept to a higher level in Above and Below, where you are presented choices in the story mode of the game.  You have to make decisions in choose-your-own-adventure fashion, and choose between two or three actions. The consequences of your choice can make a difference in terms of your rewards (although there is some valid criticism about the connection between the stories and rewards, and the rather abrupt way most stories end.)

The ultimate is the way Near and Far integrates the stories into the game at every level. The story elements are clearly interconnected to each map and even throughout the campaign.

So, I thought I would read the flavor text each time when we finally brought Islebound to the table, as a good introduction to the world. But each time I read the cards, she waved her hands dismissively and said to move on to the action.

That frankly shocked me a bit. My wife loves stories, movies and music, so the concept of make believe does not bother her. So why didn’t she enjoy the text? I was not expecting her to reject this part of the game.

When I asked her about it after the game ended (victoriously in her case, again), she said that the stories did not really seem connected to what we were doing at the time. To her, it was just a bunch of “fluff.”

That got me thinking about flavor text in games. Why do I enjoy well written flavor text?  I grew up playing D&D, and moved to Magic in 1993-94. Magic cards are notorious for having great flavor text. Even in today’s modern board games, I am always on the look out for extra flavor. We’ve been playing a lot of Clank! lately, and if you look at those cards, you will see a lot of humorous text to go with the illustrations on the cards.

To me, you miss out a lot if you don’t at least glance at the text, and see how the theme interacts with the gameplay. But, maybe she is correct? Does Islebound really need the flavor text? Would it be just as good of a game with less emphasis on the story elements (small that they may be)?  Does a game need to integrate meaningful decisions if the designer wants players to take the flavor text seriously?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Send me a reply in the comments below or a tweet @boardgamegumbo.

Until the next time we met up in Arzium, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

–B.J.

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