Board Games As: The Anti-Puzzle

A point of great debate among board gamers is the deceptively simple question:  “What is a board game?”  I have seen fellow board game philosophers argue this point as one would debate the nature of man or which player should be drafted first in Fantasy Football.

The authors of Characteristics of Games – George Skaff Elias, Richard Garfield and Robert Gutschera – began their text book with the statement that they weren’t going to define the term. What a board game is defined as isn’t as important as what a board game is comprised of.  Not being as wise as those creators, I will offer up my definition of board games… in another essay. For today, I want to focus on what a game isn’t.  Specifically, a game is not a puzzle.

Puzzles and board games check a lot of the same boxes so it’s not surprising that many game stores, like the excellent Games Unlimited in Pittsburgh, PA, sell a wide variety of both.  Puzzles and Games are active entertainment – they make your mind work. Both are more enjoyable when shared, especially with family and friends. And both are low tech, portable entertainment on demand. Just pop open the box, pour out the pieces and go for it.

So where’s the difference?  Puzzles have a single solution; games do not.

Puzzles start in chaos and filter to a single solution.  For example, consider a jigsaw puzzle.  You open the box and pour out the pieces in a chaotic pile.  The first thing you do is start bringing order – turn all the pieces face up.  Then find the corner / edge pieces to build the frame. Finally, you work the pieces in the middle until the puzzle resembles the cover of the box. Done. Solved.

A side note. My seventh grade shop teacher asked the class if we ever tore apart a Rubic’s Cube in order to solve it. Since I had disassembled and reassembled several cubes, I admitted to him that yes, I had cheated. He countered that it wasn’t cheating. It wasn’t the designer’s intended solution, but as long as the results were the same, it was a valid solution.  That’s a little Machiavellian for my taste, but I’ll take it.

Games work the opposite way. Using Chess as an example, each player starts with the identical set of pieces – 8 Pawns, two Rooks, two Knights, two bishops, and a Queen and King.  They are of equal strength on an 8 by 8 grid. What you don’t know, especially when the players are of equal skill and experience, is how the game will end.  You don’t know who will win, where the pieces will be positioned on the board, or even how many pawns each player will have captured throughout the game.  There’s no picture on the box to match. There are only winning conditions to meet.

Another side note. One might say that word puzzles are like games as they can always start in the same repeatable place. That would make them a riddle. They are a different animal that lives somewhere between a game and a puzzle and will be a topic for another day.

The concept of games starting at the same place is more challenging today than it has been in the past.  Classic games, like Checkers, Reversi, and the aforementioned Chess use mirrored forces in conflict. As the game progresses, advantages and disadvantages come and go based on player actions taken.  Many modern games put a twist on this mirrored starting point.  In these games, you don’t start in exactly the same condition; each player starts with unique skills.  This gives the game variety, personality, and if the balance is maintained, a separate but equal starting position.

Classic board games provided their players with interchangeable pawns. When playing Monopoly with my brother, he would always insist on being the dog. That was fine with me as I always wanted to be the race car.  What we failed to acknowledge is that it didn’t matter. He could have used a lima bean and I could have chosen a wad of chewed gum, it would have been just as effective (if a little gross).

Modern games like Pandemic add a role playing aspect to pawn selection. In Pandemic, you’re not just the orange pawn, you’re the Medic that has the unique ability to administers known cures for free.  How you play that specific character matters – especially when used in concert with the other players. This is essential as I’ve found that success and failure in that game often is dependent on how well each player utilizes their character’s unique ability.

This approach gives each game variety, replay ability, and a level of complexity that many classic board games simply didn’t have. If Monopoly was invented today, not only would you still have the trademark pawns, but each of them would have a unique ability that bent or broke a rule. Perhaps the race car could use its brakes so it could choose to stop one space less than the roll (example, on a roll of 12, you could choose to move 11 or 12 spaces).  The top hat could start the game with an additional $250 dollars.  Maybe the dog could choose to reroll one die once per turn.

Come to think of it, that could make an interesting expansion for Monopoly.  I’ll add that to the stack of ideas.

So whether each player starts in an identical position, or a balanced asymmetrical position, they all start in basically the same place. Through choice, chance, or challenge, the game expands out from there.  Where it stops within the designed parameters is anyone’s guess.  You are heading into the unknown. And therein lies the fun.

Puzzles are all about reaching the expected, the known.  And therein lies the fun… of a different kind .

Neither activity is necessarily better or worse than the other. It’s all about what you’re interested in doing. Both games and puzzles can brighten a dreary, rainy Saturday afternoon.  Just know that on a subconscious level, they are doing so in completely different ways.

© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved