Review Fix chats with “Storytelling in the Modern Board Game” author Marco Arnaudo, who discusses the creative vision behind the book and how he’d like it to be remembered.
About the Book:
Over the years, board games have evolved to include relatable characters, vivid settings and compelling, intricate plotlines. In turn, players have become more emotionally involved—taking on, in essence, the role of coauthors in an interactive narrative. Through the lens of game studies and narratology—traditional storytelling concepts applied to the gaming world—this book explores the synergy of board games, designers and players in story-oriented designs. The author provides development guidance for game designers and recommends games to explore for hobby players.
About the Author:
Marco Arnaudo is a professor at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he teaches classes about game design, simulations, military history, mystery fiction, and Italian literature. He is a well-known reviewer of board games, with over 1,000 video reviews.
Review Fix: What inspired the creation of this book?
Marco Arnaudo: I like to follow where the of board gaming industry is going, and I play newly released games every week. I noticed at some point that the most successful games these days are the ones that include unique characters, a scenario and campaign system, character progression, and so on. They are games that players praise for the stories they tell. I personally love this style of games, but I realized that board games of this kind were not always around. In the 80s I used to play games for their playability and attractive components, whereas to look for good stories I would turn to role-playing games. So I started wondering when, and how, this idea of board-games-that-tell-stories came to be, and how it developed into the major phenomenon it is today.
Review Fix: What makes board games worthy of a book like this in your opinion?
Arnaudo: Board games are important in today’s society not just because they can be sheer fun (which is a good thing already). In a world where digital communication has become so central, board games bring us back to ways of interacting with one another that we are almost at risk of losing. The pleasure of sitting across a table from a friend, exchanging jokes and good conversation, and feeling intellectually stimulated by the challenges of a game, are all healthy things. I also am a professor of literature and culture at Indiana University, and believe that fiction, as a way to experience other people’s stories, has an amazing power to increase our empathy, to show reality from other people’s point of view, and to learn that sometimes the best choices are not the easiest ones. Board-games-that-stories provide both types of advantage: we go unplugged and relate to each other directly, as human beings, and work together to experience a rewarding and sometimes enlightening story. It’s the best of both worlds!
Review Fix: What was the writing process like?
Arnaudo: First I started thinking about my topic theoretically. Many players have an intuitive idea of what a game-that-tells-stories is, but I saw plenty of uncertainties and contradictions in the scholarship on the subject. So I researched a lot of contemporary narratology, and tried to figure out what makes a story in general. What are the traits that, if found in an activity, make us perceive that activity as a story? Once those traits are clarified, we have a tool that we can apply to games, and we can say that if a game has many of those traits, chances are that players will experience a narrative through it.
As for the historical part, I started from both the beginning AND the end. I had a good understanding of contemporary narrative games, and I had very clear this idea that storytelling entered the world of gaming through Dungeons & Dragons. So I played a lot of games in the decades between then and now, and read hobby magazines of the time to get a sense of the context. You could say I filled in the gap going from the 70s to the 80s, and from the 2010s to the early 2000s, ending with the 90s.
Review Fix: What did you learn through the writing process that you weren’t expecting?
Arnaudo: My original impression was that D&D departed from board gaming entirely in order to become a storytelling engine. After all, that’s how *I* played the game in the 1980s and 1990s! Looking into the original D&D, I realized how much of a traditional war game it still was. It turned out that there hadn’t been any bifurcation between board games and RPGs in terms of narrative potential. Since D&D told stories, and it was still very much a wargame, it inspired not only RPG designers, but also board game designers who realized that they could, indeed, tell stories through board games. I discovered that board games since the 1970s have been excellent tools to stimulate storytelling, and also that RPGs have retained a stronger board game philosophy than I had previously imagined. The final conclusion was that there isn’t a hard line of separation between board games and RPGs. Both styles largely do similar things employing similar means. It’s a matter of different emphasis rather than different natures.
Review Fix: What are your goals for the book?
Arnaudo: Many, and they have to do with different types of readers. To scholars in general, I hope to provide critical tools that can be used in future discussions about games and stories. To scholars of digital gaming, I want to show how rich and creative the world of analog gaming can be. Many of them moved from abstract mass market games like Monopoly and Clue to Playstation and Xbox, without realizing the revolution that has occurred in board gaming in the meanwhile. To game designers, I hope to provide practical tools. If they get a good sense of how games have told stories in the past, maybe they can find inspiration for their own designs, and can possibly avoid the mistakes that were made back then. Then there are the casual readers, who may want to understand the history of their hobby better, and who may find suggestions about games they may enjoy playing.
Review Fix: How would you like it to be remembered?
Arnaudo: As someone who loves analog gaming dearly, and who wants to spread this love to the world.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Arnaudo: Many projects. In particular, I have two ongoing book projects, one about innovations in 21st-century game design, and one about interactive fiction (a la Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy). I am also working with a colleague at IU to create a peer-reviewed online journal about Italian pop culture. It will be in English, and will include regular features about gaming.