Stability As a Design Element in Tabletop Games


I’ve been designing a pirate-themed board game. I have mixed feelings about it (do we really need another pirate-themed board game? Do we really need another semi-simulationist game with a combat mechanic?), but it’s in my craw, so I’m going to work it out by making the game.

The basics are this: The board is not a board, but a bunch of tiles, played face-down as players’ ships move off the edges of the board (ala Betrayal At The House on the Hill). Players can then turn tiles over to search for islands, treasures, other ships, sea encounters, etc.

Making this game has made me realize why so many tabletop games have boards: Boards create stability. In-game text in this game cannot reference set points on the board, because the landmarks (or in the case, sea-marks, I guess) appear in a different place and at a different time each game.

Thus, the stability of the game needs to come from other sources — in this case, primarily numerical distances from the central island, which is visible and placed at the start of the game.

I tend to like tile-placement games; games with less stability than a more “standard” board game. I like the replayabilty and the surprise element that comes from starting with almost nothing on the table at the game’s beginning. The question I ran into while making the pirate game was “How to provide enough stability for the game to run itself without a board?” One easy answer is to assign one player to be the “Dungeon Master,” as in Dungeons & Dragons. This, however, removes a player from play, and requires one player to commit more time and energy to the game. This also breaks some of my unduly idealist notions about games as a self-contained set of rules and items.

I’ll list a few methods of providing game stability below, but mostly as a record for myself, as I may expand on this post later.

Board Games: The board provides stability. No matter what happens as the game plays out, the board is not affected (or affected in small ways) by players’ actions.

Tabletop RPGs (ala D&D): The Dungeon Master or similar entity provides stability by narrating, moderating, and maintaining the situations that occur on the table. This solution, however, eliminates a player, as discussed above.

Betrayal At The House on the Hill: Stability comes from the Event cards, which are fairly text heavy, and allow players to have adventures in the haunted house regardless of how that house is laid out. Most tiles have an Event occurrence, and while the nature of the event is unpredictable, the frequency of events is fairly common.

Carcassone: One of the more elegant instances of non-board stability (at least in the main game — the expansions get a little messier). The stability is supplied by the matching rules: tiles must be laid with like features touching like features, creating a predictable pattern for how the “board” develops as the game plays on.