The Tyranny of Numbers

A few months ago, I read an excellent article by Kim Foale about how victory points are often uselessly abstract within the narrative of a game, sometimes promoting a colonialist viewpoint by unconditionally rewarding morally fraught actions. I enjoyed the article, but it also made me think about the use of numbers in general – not just victory points – in tabletop games. The medium of sophisticated hobby games is still in its infancy, and one of the most telling signs is its limited vocabulary. As 3D animation could once do no more than move a few spheres and cubes, board games today are only capable of conveying systems if they can do it quantitatively. 

Math Geeks

Most of the designers that brought tabletop games into today’s renaissance had a mathematical background, most famously Dr. Reiner Knizia. Some early hobby games are explicitly throwbacks to famous mathematical problems; for example, 1998 Spiel des Jahres winner Elfenland is a gussied-up version of the traveling salesman problem.

This is all well and good, because a mathematical background gives a designer a lot of ways to make games tense, balanced, and engaging. But as theme and aesthetic gradually became more important as the board game hobby picked up in the early 2010s, holes started to appear in the seemingly impenetrable mathematical landscape of design. 

The Head And The Heart

Board games are very good at representing systems and relationships that can be easily measured. Many of the themes and mechanics of the best board games are essentially economic in measure, and track things that can be quantified. In Concordia, everything important has concrete numbers – the geographic borders of each region, the quantities of grain and cloth in the player’s possession, the amount of money required to install a trading post in Londinium. 

However, when it comes to determining the unquantifiable, board games often stumble. How can you use a pile of cardboard to measure a concept like “beauty” that each player may view differently, or a complex philosophical idea like “happiness”? Games usually either do the best they can with the tools they have (so you get games like The Pursuit of Happinesswhere “long-term happiness” is a numerical, objective thing that works the same for all people) or try to convert these concepts into something that can be measured (like Modern Art’s artist popularity). Neither really captures the concepts the theme tries to encompass.

These problems are not inherent ones to tabletop games; they exist because designers as a community haven’t yet found ways to metaphorically convey these thorny concepts to the players. In much the same way, video games are just now beginning to figure out how to tell stories that don’t look similar to movies, and Internet media is slowly exploring the space available to it with works like Jon Bois’ 17776.

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Just because unquantifiable systems in board games are rare and in their infancy doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Let’s look at a few of them.

The most common qualitative system in board games is the impress-the-judge system popularized by Apples to ApplesCards Against Humanity, and Stand Back, Citizen!. You can’t objectively measure “humor” or “suitability” for fuzzy concepts such as words, so a player is chosen to arbitrate with the understanding that their judgment will be biased. This is pretty narrow design space to explore, and many of the innovations within the genre are more based on how you construct your answers instead of who decides the victor. A few games have tried getting most of the table to vote, like Quiplash and The Champion of the Wild, but having all players simultaneously perform a fiddly action that often requires point markers is cumbersome without digital intervention. 

One of the most interesting forms of non-number based mechanical resolution is the simple horror RPG Dread, where all skills are measured via Jenga tower. Whenever you want to do something that’s not assured, simply pull and place a brick from the tower – if it falls, your character is eliminated, whether they got torn apart by werewolves or realized they had to go teach a class. This is a way of expressing a feeling in a way that is neither numerical or based on player opinion, and it does a great job of conveying the tension of a horror movie – you know something awful is going to happen but you don’t know exactly when. 

For a less thematic and more strategic example, Treasure Island elevates the math conversation from arithmetic to geometry. The win condition of the game is delightfully simple – draw a circle around your miniature, and if you nail the exact location of the treasure, you’ve outwitted Long John Silver! By mostly eschewing numbers and relying more on physical locations and shapes, Treasure Island possesses a rare viscerality and impact that makes a huge impression on first-time players.

Conclusion

In order for tabletop games to take their next step artistically, they need to explore the mechanical and thematic options available in a craft format where not everything has to be determined numerically. I am certainly not going to swear off numbers completely – they’re too valuable to cut away just because I want to be a contrarian – but as I continue my design career I will be keeping an eye out for ways for people to win that don’t necessarily involve accounting.