Novel Ideas

Reviewed by: James Davis

The themes of these games of ours are as varied as we are. We have games about virtually every war and event in history. There are games about space travel, science, fantasy, trains and even theme-less abstracts. And we have at least a couple hundred games just about trading during the Italian Renaissance. That is one of the things I like about this hobby: the endless variations. No matter what your interest, you should be able to find a game about it.

colourmagicBut there is one theme that I find can occasionally lend itself to trouble: games based on books, TV shows and movies. It has been my experience that if I am the only person who is a fan of the story a game is based on, the experience can be uncomfortable at best and irritating at worst. I try and typically fail to explain the rich history of the story the game is based on to my indulgent friends. Or worse, the game designers assume the players will know the story in depth, making the gameplay an essential part of that knowledge.

Fortunately not all media-based games have these problems. There are a number of reasons why. For example, the story could be so ubiquitous that virtually everyone knows it, such as Robinson Crusoe or Dracula. Or if it less known, then the game does not rely on the player’s knowledge of the book to be successful.

The games I’ve had the most troubles with personally are those based on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels. If you have read and love these books I’d imagine you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well first off I’d suggest you give them a try. I love the mix of humor, wonderfully imaginative characters and biting social commentary. They aren’t for everyone, I’d agree. But I’m definitely a big fan.

Without going into detail that can be found online, Terry Pratchett’s books are set in a world that is a flat disc sitting on top of four huge elephants who stand upon a giant turtle called the Great A’Tuin who swims through interstellar space. And that’s not even the weirdest part.

discworldbox1There have been a quite a few games based on Pratchett’s world. The one’s I own are: Thud by Trevor Truran, Guards! Guards! from Z-Man Games and Discworld: Ankh-Morpork and The Witches by Martin Wallace from Treefrog (and Mayfair) Games.

The game Thud is a good example of not needing to know the series of books to play. It is an abstract game that represents a battle between dwarfs and trolls and is only loosely based on some stories in the books. (Although Pratchett wrote a back story for the game that ties it into the greater narrative.) It can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Discworld.

The other three in the list above unfortunately can suffer from the need to know at least of little of the background and characters of the setting to enjoy them. They each do a good job of including in the rulebook a forward with the pertinent events and characters. That does eliminate some need to read the books, although that tends to be no real substitute. And that only works if you own the game or have access and time to read through the background text. When the game is taught to someone who hasn’t read the books, there is no time or inclination for these players to read the background. And it has been my experience that they suffer for it during the game.

They suffer because Discworld contains a wealth of characters and depth that is completely lost on an uninitiated player. For them it tends to be confusing and random. For example, in Guards! Guards! the game is based on the book of the same name where a secret brotherhood, the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night, are attempting to overthrow the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork by stealing a magic book and summoning a dragon to cause chaos. The players are newly hired members of the incompetent City Watch who need to return these spells to the Unseen University’s orangutan librarian (formerly Dr. Horace Worblehat) before it is too late.

Yes, I did say the Unseen University’s orangutan librarian. And that’s not even the weirdest part.

To someone who’s read the books, the game is a wonderful simulation of a very funny and satirical story. It is spot on with the depiction of the huge amount of unique and extremely enjoyable characters that Pratchett created in the city of Ankh-Morpork. It is fun because it reminds us of why we love the series. It relives the story again each time we play.

But for those who haven’t read any Discworld books, it can be dry, confusing and meaningless. The funny antics of the characters are lost on them. Why is the librarian an orangutan? How is Corporal Nobbs supposed to be funny? Who is Carrot Ironfondersson, and why does he think he’s a dwarf?

witchesboxThe Discworld: Ankh-Morpork game has it even worse because it contains many more characters from the books. Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler has a humorous name, but the game can’t explain the extent of the absurdity of this hilarious bit part character. How is Death supposed to be funny? Who is Rincewind and why does he have a chest with a hundred legs?

And if you are playing The Witches without knowing who Esmerelda Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick or Tiffany Aching are then the game can be a lifeless set collection co-op. I’m not saying it’s a bad game. Martin Wallace has done a great job. But there are other co-ops to play, such as Ghost Stories or Pandemic, that have a theme that is much more readily accessible.

The trouble with Discworld games is the characters. Pratchett’s lovable creations are why reading the books is so rewarding. The plots are interesting of course, but it is the characters that give life to the series. They are what you remember years after you’ve read each book. And they are why, if you don’t know them, playing a Discworld game can be so dry. The best part of the theme is removed and you are typically left with just a weird, confusing mess.

And that is why so many other games based on novels can succeed. They do not focus on the characters but instead are able to tell the story by concentrating on what happens in the book, not who it happened to. Take Z-Man Games’ The Swarm. It is based on Frank Schätzing’s novel of the same name. Simply put, you are trying to stop a threat from previously unknown life forms found in the sea. It doesn’t matter who is doing this and what their personalities are. The characters make the book come alive of course, but they aren’t essential for the game to be engaging.

astudy1aAnother example is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth (featured in the Summer 2007 issue of GA Report) and World Without End (Winter 2010 GA Report) from Mayfair. If you haven’t read the books, then you’ll not know some of the names mentioned while playing. But it doesn’t affect the simulation of the story. You don’t need to know the character’s personality to understand why events are occurring.

And getting back to Martin Wallace, there is his recent A Study in Emerald (reviewed in the Spring 2014 issue of Gamers Alliance Report) based on a very clever merger of Sherlock Holmes and H. P. Lovecraft written by Neil Gaiman. This is an interesting game because I’ve found that either people really like it or they hate it. No middle ground. But to the point, the division doesn’t seem to be between those who’ve read the story and those who’ve not. I think because the two genres are so well known, it doesn’t matter what the subject happens to be. The game can be merited on how it plays alone.

This list could go on, but I hope I’ve been able to make my point. Just like every other medium, there are limitations to what board games can do. How many times have you seen a movie based on a book you love that turned out to be disappointing? It typically is because they are two completely different ways to tell a story. A book can drop you deep into a character’s psyche and innermost thoughts. Unless you have exceptionally gifted directors, screenwriters and actors, it is much harder for movies, being purely visual, to delve into the complexity of a character’s personality.

Board games based on a story have a significantly stricter limitation because it needs to focus on being a good game first and a storytelling medium second. While events can be simulated during the play of a game, a character’s behavior and development is significantly more difficult.

While I love playing board games, I do find limitations like this somewhat frustrating. At least I’ve found that is the case personally. I am positive that there are many people who can enjoy these types of games without reading the books or watching the movie. I do think that most media-based games are fun to play on their own merits. (There are a lot of stinkers as well of course.)

Each person’s experience is different and I’m positive everyone does not share my frustration. But I’ve personally been discouraged each time I’ve played a Discworld based game because I was unable to share my enthusiasm for the source material To me, the games are less a welcoming introduction to Pratchett’s wonderfully rich world, and more of a nod to his already existing fans.

Have feedback? We’d love to hear from you.

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