These past few weeks I’ve been on break from school, and when I wasn’t playing Skull, I was playing “Fog of Love”. Plenty of people have gushed about this game, and I am firmly in that camp — I love “Fog of Love.” I think it does things that board games as medium have been chomping at the bit to do for a long time, but have never quite pulled off. I love that it took a first-time game designer to pull it off. I love that it was a game inspired by the breadth of genres in other media, and the dearth of genres in board games.
But what is most interesting to me is that “Fog of Love” really effectively engages its players’ emotions. Most of this post won’t make sense unless you’re familiar with the rules and gameplay of “Fog of Love”, so please, go buy or play it.
By “engages players’ emotions” I don’t (necessarily) mean narratively. Rather, I mean that the game, by virtue of its mechanisms, forces you to behave like someone in a relationship. Because your trait cards are hidden from the other player, you have to guess what they’re after based on where their tokens end up on the six aspect tracks. This, to my mind, really effectively models empathy. Based on what another person communicates via their words and actions (as represented by those aspect tracks), you have to guess what they really want.
“Fog of Love” takes it a step further, however: Once you have an informed guess about what your partner wants, you have to make some hard decisions; namely, will you help your partner move in the direction they want to move on the aspect trackers, even if it hurts your satisfaction (the other big tracking mechanism) or your desired position on the aspect trackers.
I played with a friend of mine recently, and we were able to both succeed in our destinies, due in part to the fact that I was able to move on aspect trackers that I didn’t care about (i.e. that I didn’t have trait goals representing) in order to help her character achieve his (we played gender-swapped characters) trait goals. That made a lot of the decisions relatively easy. The game gets more complicated (and more like real life) when you have to decide whether it’s worth it to help your partner achieve their goal (as far as you can guess) even if it means sacrificing one of your own goals.
One model for designing games is to think about who the player wants to imagine themselves as, and then think about how to make the player feel like that person. Hence, lots of games where players become heroic, powerful people vanquishing monsters, ruling lands, etc. While these games do deliver on their promises of feelings of success and power via triumphs over difficult odds, the mechanical enactment of the fantasy often feels abstract.
This is fine. I’m not calling out games for being abstract. Abstraction is in the nature of games. But where “Fog of Love” succeeds, and where it teaches a really powerful design lesson is in refusing to abstract the emotional aspects of its story. When I’m playing a hero in Middle Earth Quest or a pilot in X-Wing, it’s fun to feel how my character feels, and the game even encourages that via its mechanics, but it probably won’t help me win the game. In “Fog of Love”, in order to succeed, I need to feel how my character feels. I need to empathize, to struggle over sacrifices, to create moments for clear communication or attempt the high-stakes mind-reading that can happen in real relationships when communication breaks down.
“Fog of Love” makes feeling a skill in playing and winning the game. That’s something new, and something that bodes well for the future of the medium.