A Touch of Elegance

Growing up, I knew Fred Astaire from three specific roles – the stop-motion singing mailman from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the elderly gentleman who loses his love interest in The Towering Inferno, and of course, Starbuck’s father in the original Battlestar Galactica. That was it. I remember hearing something about him singing and dancing in old movies, but having never seen them, they were little more than a rumor to me. This all changed a decade ago when a bout of insomnia conspired with a classic movie channel to open my eyes.

The movie was 1935’s Top Hat which was restored, but thankfully not colorized. There was Astaire, young and lean in his black tuxedo and bright white shirt and tie. In his arms was Ginger Rogers, all powdered and perfumed in a flowing feathered gown with not one hair out of place. As they performed the signature song, Cheek to Cheek, the two moved as one, never missing a step, but never looking purposefully choreographed either. They flowed together through a cavernous set like intertwined spirits. If I may employ an overused phrase, it was elegance personified.

Hang out with enough gamers and you’re bound to hear at least one of them talk about a game being elegant. When compared to the cinema magic of Fred and Ginger, it’s initially a ridiculous notion. How can a collection of inanimate cardboard and plastic pieces ever rise to the grace and precision of two dancers at the top of their form?

The truth is, some games do. And when you break down dancing and gaming, describing the two dissimilar art forms as elegant stops being so unbelievable.

Let’s begin with design. I’m not a dancer, but back in college I designed stage lighting for several student dance recitals. This required my working with the chorographer as well as attending many of the rehearsals. It was obvious from the start that nothing about that performance was given to chance. Every step, every pose, every look gave a different impression and told a different story. From beginning to end, every aspect was thought out, precise, specific and purposeful.

Similar design precision is demonstrated by the martial arts themed board game Onitama from Arcane Wonders. This deceptively simple game played on a 5×5 board pits two equal forces against each other. Each side has one master (King) and four students (Pawns). Unlike chess which has predetermined piece movements, Onitama uses cards to specify move options. At any time, each player has two cards (i.e. a choice of two moves) at their disposal while a fifth card is in the center. After a player chooses one of their cards to make a move, they exchange it with the card in the center. So they know whatever move they make now, will be available to their opponent after their next turn. Thus, not only do you need to worry about what move you’re going to make, you have to consider what moves you’ll allow your opponent to make. It’s the closest thing to the give and take of a choreographed dance that I’ve ever experienced on a game board.

Yet, no matter how precise the choreography is, or how careful the design, it is always dependent on execution. Early in the process as dancers learn the steps, it is purely an exercise in mechanics. Where do they stand, how do they stand, when do they move, where will they end up… As the rehearsals progress, a careful observer can spot the more experienced and talented dancers in the troupe. While the rookies are still counting and thinking, the experienced dancers are feeling and becoming. For the veterans, the rough mechanical edges are quickly smoothed away and the chorographer’s vision emerges.

The challenge of execution with board games is that they are somewhat reliant on the players. Some gamers will instantly get what the game is about and play accordingly. Other players, those who are less experienced or simply prefer a different type of game, won’t execute at as high a level. To a degree, game designers can’t avoid this unknown. They can, however, mitigate the risk. Start with clear, concise, illustrated instructions to help all players quickly learn the steps. Unlike a choreographer who is in the room and can demonstrate the dance, game designers must utilize remote technology and post how to play videos on the web. And the most important step – extensively play test your design. Even the most brilliant choreographer will tweak their design once they see it in motion and in three dimensions.

The final element may also be the most important: Simplicity. For Cheek to Cheek, Astaire was not in an elaborate costume. He wore a black tuxedo that was simple and stark against the marble grays of the background and the white of Rogers’ flowing gown. Imagine if he wore a tuxedo that blended into the background, or worse, displayed a busy pattern or an array of garish colors which distracted from the performance. The choreography and execution would be upstaged and the elegance would have been lost.

If there is a cardinal sin of board game design, it’s cramming too much content in too little space. If the text doesn’t fit on a card, printing it in 4-point sized letters isn’t a solution. If I need to reference a user manual each turn to review the 20 options I have for my character, perhaps the selections should be streamlined. And while flavor text can reinforce and further the theme, it should never be so intrusive as to grind the game to a halt while you read it all.

I heard an interview with a game designer – I believe it was Pandemic’s Matt Leacock – concerning simplicity in games. The designer said that everything you need to play the game should be readily accessible on the board. If you’re constantly referring to the rule sheet, or arguing over how to play the game, then you’ll never become engrossed by it.

This isn’t to say that games can’t be complex. In fact, modern board games have to obtain a level of complexity in order to hold the attention of the video game crowd. But along with complexity the game design has to provide a path through. The designer has to lead. And just as Rogers and Astaire moved as one on the dance floor, so do the game design and the player. Unfortunately, we rarely have the benefit of being in the presence of the designer when we play. So designers are forced to lead their players separated by space, time, culture and a hundred other factors. But if the design is solid enough, it can transcend all of that and still provide a touch of elegance for generations yet to come.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved