While attending Clarion University in the early 1990s, I took a class entitled “Writing for the Stage and Screen”. My reason for this was twofold. At the time I was seriously considering a career as a playwright (didn’t happen). I also wanted to better understand how movies were made (that did happen). Unfortunately, the best way to ruin your childhood is to get an education. More on that shortly.
I learned that a standard screenplay has a three-act structure to it. In the first act, referred to as the Setup, you meet the important characters, the setting, and the situation. Or in other words, we learn the who, where, when and why. Act one has various lengths, but it is often much shorter than the second act.
The second act is the Confrontation, aka the “rising action”. The characters interact in the setting established in the first act and conflict ensues. Often the main characters undergo a change during this act. This character arc is the driving force behind the story. For instance, the farm boy from act one leaves the farm and learns the skills in act two that he will need to save the day in act three. If it wasn’t for the lessons and strife encountered in the second act, he would be ill-equipped to ultimately win.
The third act is the resolution. In action movies, it’s the big final battle. In mysteries, it’s the unmasking of the guilty. In romances, it’s the lovers finally allowed to be together – or one or both of them are dead. Romances are funny like that.
As any fan of Quentin Tarantino can attest, not every filmmaker uses this model, but the vast majority of filmmakers do. And as it turns out, so do a great many board game designers.
The act one of a board game is also called the Setup, and in the old days, it was a passive beginning – all exposition. Think of a game’s setup like the prologue in a Shakespeare play. You read the instructions, or in the play’s instance, an actor comes out to center stage and just spells it out for you. Like this prologue from Romeo and Juliet:
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
There’s no interpretation, there’s no action to be taken. Here’s the situation. Got it? Now go with it. It’s like sitting down to play chess. No one is concerned about the backstory. The pieces – the characters – are in these positions and they are in conflict. That’s all you need to know. And… begin.
Up until the role playing games of the 1970s, or the table top games of the 1990s, that was good enough. You open the box, place the game pieces in their predetermined starting positions and off you go. It was like racking the balls for billiards. You don’t begin until the proper pieces are in the proper places. Otherwise, the game doesn’t count.
One of the best elements in modern board games is the variety of setup. For example, in the cooperative game Defenders of the Realm from Eagle-Gryphon Games, four generals lead their armies toward Monarch City in the center of the board. The generals always start in the same position, but their soldiers’ locations are determined via random card pulls. The players’ personas are also chosen at random.
There are three important parts to this setup. First, each player’s persona has a unique ability that affects strategy, thus increasing variety and replayability. Second, determining minions’ starting positions by card pulls means that opening strategies change each time that you play. Third, once setup is complete, just like with a screenplay, you’ve met the principal characters, you understand how this world works, and you’re ready for the confrontation. Act One has ended.
Act Two is usually the longest portion of both the screenplay and the game play. Players take turns, the board constantly changes, and the players gain and lose advantages. In Defenders of the Realm, this rising action comes as additional minions are placed onto the board at the end every turn and there is a chance for one of the generals to move closer to victory.
As each general is defeated, they are removed from play, but the tension is ratcheted up. The number of minions placed each turn increases, as does the chance that the remaining generals move closer to Monarch City. Time is not on the players’ side as the narrative drives toward a conclusion.
Act Two is where movies succeed or fail. We’ve all seen movies that have a great beginning, and a fantastic ending, but the middle was a slog. There isn’t enough interesting stuff going on, so the narrative sags. While games can suffer here as well, the best designers have an answer for this.
One of my favorite designers is Matt Leacock, the creator of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Forbidden Desert, and other great games. Forbidden Island depicts a treasure hunt on a sinking island. Tension is maintained by increasing the rate at which the island sinks. This constantly presents fresh situations to the players, and tension is maintained through to Act Three and the conclusion of the game.
Act Three completes the story arc. By now, the viewer/gamer has seen all of the elements pertinent to the story. There’s nothing worse than an important element added at the last second. This is unfair to the viewer/gamer and makes them feel cheated. If they knew that element was there all along, it would have factored into their strategy.
In other words, the game has to conclude organically. You know what you know, you know what the opposition can do, so it’s up to the player to act and to seize the victory condition. Leaving it up to luck or deus ex machina, takes the fun out of the gamer’s hands.
In Defenders of the Realm, no new mechanics are added after the setup. The only change is that the tempo increases – and often that’s more than enough challenge.
Satisfying movies contain believable character arcs where the main character isn’t who they were at the beginning of the story. The ugly duckling is now the swan. The marooned alien has gone home. The quiet hobbit is now a rich adventurer who stood his ground against an ancient dragon.
Games have a development arc as well. And even though the characters and avatars used by the players may grow in strength over the course of the game, the important character arc is that of the gamer themselves. You shouldn’t be the same person at the end of play than you were when you began it. Your play should become more practiced, more nuanced, and more effective. Your play becomes better because you and your thought processes have become better. You have learned.
In the opening paragraph I mentioned that the best way to ruin your childhood is to get an education. Now that I understand the three-act structure, I haven’t been able to view movies in the same way. I understand them in a deeper, more meaningful way, but I find it harder to allow myself to be swept away and engulfed by the movie’s story. I’ve peeked behind the curtain and spoiled the magic.
With games, the opposite is true. When I see the mechanics of a game like Defenders of the Realm, I’m drawn in. Play after play it’s a fresh and unpredictable experience where I can develop new strategies and take new paths to victory. I’m not watching the hero, I am the hero. And that is the most any of us can ask for from our entertainment.
© 2016 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved