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Invokes a sense of exploration and discovery

One of my regrets is that I was born too late to explore the world and born too early to explore the stars…Luckily board games can help satisfy my desire “to go where no-one has gone before”.

In this post I want to look at “exploration” as an element of board games. How to incorporate it and what the advantages and disadvantages are.

What it means to explore
When I think about exploration I think about the crew of the Enterprise going to star-systems where the Federation has never been, or a Victorian gentleman trudging through the jungles of Africa.

But there are more meanings to “exploration”: We can explore a city that is new to us, or we can explore a novel idea.

Exploration at its heart then is about “interacting with something new” (new from the perspective of the explorer: The civilizations that the Enterprise found knew darn well they were there all along!). Something that was hidden, now no longer is.

Why go exploring?
Exploration means trudging through mosquito invested swamps, getting shot at by aliens or getting chased by animals with an appetite. Why would you want to put yourself through something like that?Because hopefully, at the end of it all, you’ll discover something. El Dorado, a new civilization, the origins of the Nile.

And that discovery will be valuable to you. Because you’ll sell the gold you find, because it means a job well done or because you’ll gain prestige with your fellows back home.

Keep this in mind for the rest of this article!

Exploration in board games
For something to be “explorable”, there has to be the unknown, the hidden. And thus if you, as a game designer, want to add exploration to your game, you’ve got to hide things. Luckily board games have several ways keeping things hidden.

Tiles
Probably the most common way of implementing “exploration” is by placing (or flipping) tiles to make up your board.

Until a player moves one of their pawns to a location, that space is “empty”, unexplored. And only by “going there” can the player find out what there is to find.

This is a good abstraction of “real” exploration where you’re going to distant lands, not knowing what you’ll find over the next mountain or at the next bend of the river.

However, this method can also fall flat, if it doesn’t call forth the excitement of exploration. For example in Carcasonne players are drawing tiles and placing them around the board, in a sense “exploring” more of what the world looks like. But this game doesn’t engender a strong sense of “exploration” (for me at least). I think this is because a tile is drawn and then it is placed where it will fit. Players are not making a choice (“going somewhere”) and then seeing what they find, instead they see what they find and then decide where it was they went to… In a way the players are getting their “reward” first, before doing the hard / dangerous work.

Tile laying works best when the space to be explored is connected in a spatial manner. This is obviously true for “distant lands”, but far less so for “ideas” or other more mental “discoveries”.

Tiles used in this way do give a “discovery” (you now know what’s on the tile), but unless there is something that you can do there, there isn’t much value to it (“oh good, I found another forest…”). Of course you can add elements to a tile that are valuable, something that the exploring player gains when flipping the tile.

It is also possible for a tile to be valuable in itself. For example in the Catan Seafarers expansion players can “sail” to new spaces on the map and find islands. These islands then allow the placement of further villages. Especially when the newly found island tile has a good number (i.e. 6 or 8) then this is a definite boon for the exploring player, as they will be the first to be able to settle there.

Tokens
Another staple in exploration games is the token: You come to a far-away land and what you find there is represented by a piece of cardboard. This can be placed on the “map” (which might consist of tiles) if it represents a “permanent structure” like a city or a monolith. Alternatively, the token can be taken by the discovering player, if it represents a useful resource that can be carried by the player, for example a treasure or some wood.Where it’s somewhat illogical for tiles to represent something other than “the world”, tokens have more flexibility. As described above, these can be permanent “additions” to the map, or they can be temporary resources that the player can make use of.

Especially when using tokens to represent either a permanent or a temporary addition, the interest can be increased as it makes it even more uncertain what exactly you’ll find.

Cards
Cards of course are nothing but thinner and (generally) larger tiles, so anything you could use tiles for you could use cards for (and vice versa). Still, tiles and cards have a different feel to them.

Tiles work great to create an (explorable) map. This could be done with cards as well, but this would be somewhat more fiddly, as cards don’t stay put as well and have a tendency to slide over each other.

Cards therefore are more suited for exploration that has less to do with moving over a map. They are more appropriate for exploration where adjacency matters less. For example if I wanted to create a game about exploring ideas I would be much more likely to use cards.

Cards also have a larger surface area, meaning you can put more information and / or graphics on them. Probably the best example of this would be T.I.M.E. Stories, where you lay out a row of cards which forms a panorama which subsequently can be explored by flipping the individual cards over. Here great use is made of the visual space to really invoke a sense of “this is really what you’re seeing”. And the other side of the cards is used to good effect to contain a reasonably large amount of information.

Cards are naturally stacked into a deck, which allows for easy shuffling and drawing (somewhat more so than tiles). This then can translate into exploring in sequence. “This War of Mine” does this very nicely. In the game there is an “explore” deck which represents a generic building. Every card represents a space that you move through. Some spaces contain good or bad stuff, most allow you to continue moving to a next space, some are a dead end. It would’ve been possible to create the “layout” of a building (creating a map of sorts), but this sequential exploration really gets the idea across as well.

Dice?
The essence of exploration is to “to find something new”. In board games this can be simulated by obtaining information that was previously hidden, as explained in the previous paragraphs. Generally an element (tile, token, card) is chosen at random and the depiction on the invisible side is what is “discovered”

The randomness of this then is an important part of the exploration. This however can also be simulated by rolling dice, for example with symbols on the dice or by matching results to a table.

Personally I feel that this is a less satisfactory way of exploring. The results may be similar enough, but it feels strange that you find something that is “randomly generated”, instead of something that was always there but “hidden” (on the other side of a card / tile).

Also the physical act (rolling dice) is hard to match with what the action is supposed to depict (e.g. trudging through a jungle into unknown lands). For me the “visuals” of the other components help to make it feel more real.

The benefits of including exploration
My belief is that two of the most important pieces to make a board game fun are “interesting decisions” and “tension”.“Going exploring” can be an interesting decision, if there are other possible decisions as well. However, that remark could be made when comparing any two distinct decisions. Thus, “interesting decisions” is not where exploration shines.

This is different from “tension”. When you go exploring, by definition you don’t know what you’ll discover and this can create a very interesting tension, in multiple ways.

First, exploration can (potentially) generate both beneficial and detrimental outcomes (the difference between finding El Dorado and an alligator). Thus, exploration can be a form of risk taking, with all the excitement that that entails.

Second, even if your game only gives positive outcomes when exploring (e.g. Catan Seafarers), there can be different levels of goodness: Finding an empty stretch of sea is not negative, but it isn’t nearly as good as finding a juicy meadow with a 6 on it! Especially if you’re hoping for something, the tension can be very high!

Discovery and replayability
The thrill of exploration (and discovery) is “going where no one has gone before”. In games we can simulate this with hidden information. However, after a few games, players will know what types of cards / tiles / tokens are in the game, meaning that whatever they find won’t be completely new.

Especially for the real “exploration junkies” (see this post for more on player types) this is somewhat of a downside.

There are a few around (or perhaps straight through) this:

First, the fewer “explorable elements” players see, the longer there will be new things to experience. Robinson Crusoe does this well: There are a number of adventure decks, but you only draw a few cards from them per game. I’ve played the game 10 times, but every game there is something new again and I love it!

The other side of this of course is that you can just add more discoverable elements, to make the chances smaller of seeing everything. That will make your game more expensive to produce of course. Alternatively, you can add new material in expansions and in that way increase the explorability for those who really value it.

Or, you can embrace the fact that once something is explored it loses some of its shine, by making every explorable item a one-off (this is the “right through” option). T.I.M.E. Stories does this excellently, with an expansion consisting of a deck of cards that players can explore (they invented their own genre: Decksploration). Escape-rooms-in-a-box work on the same principle that once you’ve seen the contents, you can’t play the game again. This can create a higher barrier for people to buy your game, but once they do (and like it), you can be ensured of selling a steady number of expansions.Finally, Legacy games are perfect for adding an exploration element. In a way this happens quite naturally with opening new boxes, but the game type is very well suited for it in general. Of course a Legacy game isn’t “replayable” in the strict sense of the word, but you do get a lot of games out of a single box and every time you might find something new.

I’d like to specifically mention “SeaFall” here, which takes exploration in a Legacy setting to the max. The game has some flaws and I know not everybody is happy with it, but the fact that it does exploration so well currently puts it at the top of my list of favorite games.

Closing thoughts
I personally love to go exploring. Safely from behind some cardboard, of course! And I wished there were more games that would tickle that itch. So hopefully you’ve found something interesting and useful in this post, so that some time in the future I’ll have lots of games to pick from specifically for this!

This post has certainly been an inspiration for myself: The game I’ve just started on (see here for the high-level vision for that) now contains tiles, tokens and cards, all ready to be explored!

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