Monday, February 2, 2015

Game Stories: Mechanical Hares

This week, the topic shifts to a negative aspect of narrative in some games. It's a concept that I'll be calling "mechanical hares", and it has to do with how your objectives in a game aren't necessarily meaningful objectives. In the interest of exploring game narratives, I'll talk about how these "mechanical hares" show up in some games, and are averted by others. Read on to find out just what that means...

"Mechanical hare" is slang for a type of lure used in greyhound racing. Instead of chasing an actual animal around the racetrack, the greyhounds chase an artificial lure that keeps looping around the track. It calls back to the use of dogs in sport hunting, but that's not the actual point of the hare--nobody's there to see if the dogs are going to chase down the hare. Everyone's watching to see which dog will complete the race first. The hare just exists to facilitate it; the real point is watching the race.

So what do mechanical hares look like in tabletop gaming?

Eurogames: Start Your Engines
Mechanical hares actually show up in a number of eurogames, such as Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, or 7 Wonders. They're called "victory points". You do things to earn you victory points, and the person with the most victory points wins. So, victory points are an incentive. But they're not much of an objective on their own, are they? When you play Carcassonne, the most interesting part isn't the points that you're scoring--it's the weird landscape formations that you're making and maneuvering in order to score those points.

The main meat of these eurogames is the engine that you build in the game. By "engine", I mean that when you play these games, you find efficient ways to combine the game's mechanics so that you can convert game resources into points. The reason that people play the game is not to earn points, but to figure out how to effectively build that engine. Like with the mechanical hare, the points are an excuse, a way to motivate players to build strong engines. If you took points out of these games, they would still be playable! It just wouldn't be as interesting, because you'd have no reason to make your engine effective.

The War of Kings
Now let's look at a game that completely averts the Mechanical Hare problem. It's a very old game: Chess. Chess comes right out with a clear objective that relates directly to what you're doing in the game: capture the King. The primary purpose of playing Chess is to get into a position where you can capture the opposing King, and every move you make should bring you closer to that goal. Furthermore, the objective is directly related to the main mechanics of the game: in most of the game, you move some pieces and capture other pieces, and the winner is the player who can position themself to capture the most important piece on their opponent's side.

Here, checkmate isn't a mechanical hare, because it's the main point of the entire game. When you move a piece, you're primarily aiming to advance your threat against the King, with secondary goals that help you to bring that about. It might not always be your immediate objective, but it's a meaningful primary objective that's strongly tied to what you're doing anyway. It's very associated with your gameplay.

Are Mechanical Hares Bad?
Of course, there's nothing wrong per se with Mechanical Hares! I love playing eurogames, after all. They tend to weaken the narrative of the game, however. When you're playing a game in order to acquire "renown" or "glory" or "influence" or any other synonym for "victory points", that aspect of the theme falls a bit flat. On the other hand, when you're driving towards a specific story-supported goal, such as "conquer the world" (RISK), "burn through your opponent's deck" (one victory condition in Magic), or "capture your opponent's deck" (War), all of your actions in the game become more interesting.

Some games do rely on a Mechanical Hare as the MacGuffin that all of the players are chasing after, and that's okay. But when you're making a game, take some time to consider whether you couldn't make that objective something that tells a bit of a story instead.

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