Storytelling games are a natural fit for a library. A library, itself, is a collection of stories. They are in the books, the movies, the media. They inhabit the meeting rooms, the social spaces, the computers. People meet, create and imbue a library with stories. So, to begin this blog called “Board in the Library”, let us talk about storytelling games.
In a Storytelling game, one of the main mechanisms is for the players to creatively craft disparate elements into a cohesive story. Perhaps symbols on a die need to be interpreted to make sense. Maybe cards are played that need to be linked together with a similar narrative arc. Maybe you do this to score points or race to the finish. Maybe you just want to watch the show and story unfold.
It can be challenging to define a storytelling game. Most Role Playing Games (RPGs) are, at their core, a game where a group of people tell a story together. Some groups prefer that the end result is a fantastic narrative while others would prefer to focus on game mechanisms and game-play such as advancing in levels, gathering loot, defeating foes, getting to the end. Some games equate being creative with storytelling. So, for example, when you play many “party” games, you may have to create definitions, rhymes, or titles which due to their creative construction, can be construed as “storytelling.” Although, I cringe a tad when I hear Cards Against Humanity being described as storytelling…
However, I’m referring to storytelling games where the act of storytelling itself is the main motivation of the game and game-play is defined by the ability to take control of the narrative elements through different auxiliary mechanics. Basically, you need to tell a story to determine who controls the narrative and is able to guide it to a preferred outcome. This is different from a game which has narrative potential where a story may arise from other elements of game-play. Most thematic games have some story elements (albeit not one that makes sense) and a particularly creative group of players can always piece together a story but it isn’t mandatory to enjoyment of the game. The bottom line is that a strongly thematic game with a developed narrative arc can still be enjoyed solely on the auxiliary elements but a storytelling game needs the story for it to succeed.
Below I’ll describe and recommend some games where storytelling is directly needed to play and enjoy the game. they are placed in three broad categories: Beginner will have simple rules, easy game play, and limited strategic depth for entry level gamers (families, children, anyone really); Intermediate will have more complexity and strategy for those emerging gamers who have a couple of games under their collective belts; Expert will blow your mind with even more complexity added for flavor and will appeal to fully-fledged, merit-badged and honored board gamers. These categories are presented as guidelines and readers are encouraged to try whichever game strikes their fancy.
Dixit — Dixit is a storytelling game for families who want to experience the joys of LSD without the annoying legality issues. Each of the game’s 84 cards is a strangely surreal image where players take a turn as the storyteller and chooses one card from her hand of 6. She then has to…make up a sentence, sing a song lyric, quote some poetry, or utter an incomprehensible vocalization, which in some way describes the image on the card. Every other player then selects a card from their hands which best matches the statement and gives the card to the storyteller. After all the cards are shuffled and flipped, the players bet on which picture belongs to the storyteller. This is another easy to teach game with broad appeal. I’ve seen this one work well for groups of families, experienced gamers, seniors, and kids.
Rory’s Story Cubes: This is a simple game that’s engaging for any number of players of all ages. Each chunky 1″ cube has 6 icons, with a total of 54 all-together in a set. You roll all 9 cubes to randomize the images and then create story from the resulting roll starting (of course) with the iconic “Once upon time…” and ending however you wish. This is a tiny game which takes very little shelf space, is inexpensive, can be learned by staff quickly and has multiple uses from storytimes to gaming nights, to staff in-services and ice-breakers. Additionally the game has several expansions, each with 9 new dice, and themed to different topic (Clues, Enchanted, Intergalactic, Medic, Prehistoria and Score). Whatever combination Rory’s Story Cubes is fun for all and will likely get your creative juices flowing.
Gloom: Take Edward Gorey, add a pinch of the macabre, add a pinch more of the macabre, add whatever macabre you have left in the cabinet, then mix in some card playing mechanisms and some of the coolest transparent cards ever and you have Gloom. In this card game players control a really, really, really weird Addams-like family with the equally strange goal of having each member die in the most distressed state as possible. This is accomplished by other players playing cards on your family with nice things happening and you placing horrible events on your family to shatter their personal self-image to the point of tears. While you can play this story solely by the card-play alone, the real fun is weaving a twisted tale about how the patriarch of your family was menaced by mice or diverted by drink or … overcome with otters. Gloom is called “The Game of Inauspicious Incidents and Grave Consequences” and it totally lives up to that title.
Once Upon A Time: Once Upon a Time is from the same publisher as Gloom and while the game-play is clunkier, the theme is much less dark and potentially more approachable for younger groups. Unlike Gloom, where the competitive game-play can take over, Once Upon a Time encourages a more collaborative atmosphere. Each player takes a turn as the Storyteller, and tells a story using the cards in her hand (all very common fairy tale tropes). Story cards allow her to guide the story towards her Ending Card (each player has a different ending card). The other players can usurp her story through Interrupt Cards thus becoming the new Storyteller. The winner is the first person to lose all their cards and end the story. Although, honestly, just use the cards to make a hilarious story. When you play to win this game, it can lose it’s appeal quickly.
Fiasco: We are entering the wilds of storytelling games now and no game is wilder than Fiasco. This is also, without a doubt, my favorite storytelling game so I’m a bit biased. In the long standing tradition of heist/caper movies as well as the film noire, players are trying to plan something. Something not quite legal or particularly moralistic. Also within that tradition it will likely go poorly for everyone. The game’s primary mechanism is the creation (through dice rolls and charts) of a web of relationships, places and things. The players then role-play and create the scenes. Eventually the best laid plans of mice and men go completely to pot (the “Tilt” is introduced) and everything goes awry. It doesn’t end well for anyone, including you…so don’t even try. Just go out in way befitting of your station. This is a wonderful entry level RPG is you are interested in introducing people to something outside of the standards from Dungeons & Dragons, Chaosism or White Wolf. It does take a skilled or at least experienced player to moderate the game though.
Tales of the Arabian Nights: This is the only storytelling game on this list that actually look like a board game. In it, you travel across a medieval Middle Eastern landscape affecting the world with your actions while the world throws everything it has back at you! Just a heads up, the world has plenty to throw at you. For example, you may end up a jilted lover, a penniless beggar, or a fantastic vizier. But it is more likely you will just end up hideously deformed. As with many storytelling games, Tales is meant to be more of an experience for the players and less of a game. Meaning that the goal will be a fantastic story for each of the players rather than having one particular person relish in the glory of winning. To play, you choose skills and abilities (stealth, luck, quick thinking), then you move about the map having encounters with various mundane and fantastical events. Having encounters is where this game enters the “Expert” realm. In Tales, you have to roll dice, check charts and play cards to see what actually happens to you. Then you move though a very large “Choose Your Own Adventure”-type book to see where your story goes. It can be a tad clunky and long to play but I guarantee the story will evolve that you will talk about with friends, family, strangers… anyone who will listen really.
Happy Birthday, Robot!: From the ephemeral Daniel Solis comes this game which is described as a “storytelling party game for clever kids, gamer parents and fun classrooms.” You never can be sure how much you will get to write or where the story will go. Could be a couple of words. Could be a bunch. But it starts with the words “Happy Birthday, Robot!” Unlike the other games in this list, this one was pretty much marketed as an “educational” game but coming from Solis, you can guarantee it will be fun and slightly weird.
Storytelling games tend to create a shared experiences and a creative narrative arc. They don’t focus on winning as a goal so competitive players may not appreciate them as much. However, if players enjoy cooperative games they may also appreciate a shared storytelling experience.
They tend to be small in size, with limited components and smaller rules books. This makes them (mostly) portable and easy to teach quickly, nice for fledgling library board game collections and events, and simple to train staff on their use and play.
Unfortunately, storytelling games put people on the spot to be spontaneous , creative or witty. This can alienate introverts, or those that prefer long strategy over quick thinking.
Looking for a gateway into Role Playing Games (RPGs)? Many storytelling games can provide that experience without the “stigma” of playing an RPG or role playing. Don’t get me wrong, I love RPGs. I’m just saying that some storytelling games can whet the whistle for someone who is creative, intuitive and theatrical without having to face a wall of geek culture which can be intimidating.
Storytelling games are creative and rely on imagination over tactics and strategy and should be a staple of any board gaming library collection. Were it up to me, everyone would have Dixit and then Gloom.