The 5 most (biographically) influential games ever!
I’m not generally a fan of list articles, and even less of ones about what games are “fact” more influential than others. Certainly, if the list is ten or fewer games, I’m fairly sure you’d have a hard time getting past folk games before you hit double figures. That said I really enjoyed Giant Brain’s recent blog on the games that most influenced them personally. I commented responding with my own top five, so feel free to save yourself time and just read that comment, but I thought I’d go into my choices a little more in this blog in case it makes interesting reading. So, these are, in no real order, the top 5 games that have had the most influence on me as a games designer.
Spitting Image The Game of Scandal
First things first, this is not a good game. Its too long (most games I played clocked in at well over two hours and I don’t remember ever finishing a game), involves unavoidable player elimination (and at the full six player count potentially elimination an hour or more before the end of the game) and involves a few loophole rules that gives the owner and first player an excessive advantage. I think I received it as a gift when I was about 8 or 9 but in retrospect it’s a pretty weird gift for a small child to get, it must have been expensive for the time and a lot of the humour in the game is quite grown up. I don’t remember being a huge fan of Spitting Image at the time and I suspect that this was a game that got handed on to me from either my parents or older brother because it was a little more complex and wordier than Monopoly, and I was that sort of child. All that said, it had one small mechanic that made a huge impact on me, in that it allowed players to choose how far they moved between one and six spaces rather than roll a die. This was the first time in my life that I’d come across a game that wasn’t an abstract and had board-based movement without asking that you rolled dice to move around it.
Up until that point movement in a game had always seemed to be a largely pointless process that you went through to get to the interesting parts of the game and this was the first time I’d come across a game that actually made the movement step into something interesting, something tactical that had choices to it. The lesson there was that there was no part of a game design that wasn’t a viable place to put in interesting choices, nothing that shouldn’t be made fun and interesting.
Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks: Deathtrap Dungeon
There’s a certain sort of youth that learnt the word foolhardy before they learnt the word jerk, the sort of youth that, like me, pretty much learnt to read on Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks. I think I was about five or six when my brother and mum bought the first seventeen books second hand and working through them was absolutely a formative experience for me. A couple of years ago I met Ian Livingstone at UKGE in the morning before the public were let in and tried, in between fairly hysterical crying, to tell him how much the books had meant to me, but its no exaggeration to say that without them I’d not be designing games now.
I pick out Deathtrap Dungeon among so many because for me it had the perfect pacing of plot, a fantastic bad-guy and set-up and really made its NPCs work. I could say much the same for Cavern of the Snow Witch, but for me I ended up playing through Deathtrap Dungeon with a friend, essentially as a roleplaying game where I played GM from the book. It showed me how you could care about a fairly two-dimensional character who was absolutely doomed to death and it showed me the value of building a story in a game.
Games Workshop have gone through periods with and without boxed games as being a large part of their output, I hit my early teens around what I still feel might have been one of its box game golden ages. I got the original Space Hulk board game and both of its boxed expansions, Genestealer and Deathwing (back when the Deathwing space marines were indigenous Americans rather than neo goths). Probably the main reason that this was such a formative game for me was simply that it came with a swathe of Genestealer minis. I don’t think I’d ever have played a mass battle game if I’d been forced to buy an army from scratch at that age, and don’t get me wrong, I know that’s very much what GW were shooting for, but it meant that with the addition of just a Patriarch I had a pretty respectable 40k army. Now, the last time I played 40k was Genestealer Cult against Squats from the first iteration of the Genestealers, but it led me into a part of the hobby in tabletop miniature gaming that has been an on and off companion now for almost thirty years, from casual club gaming to hardcore tournaments and now design.
The original version of Space Hulk required that the Space Marine player make their turns under a time limit pressure, measured with a stop watch. This was back in the days before everyone had a smartphone based stopwatch on them at all times, so we often played without the stopwatch itself, but it showed me how tension could be built in a game, how the hidden nature of one side’s resources could build pressure. Its also a 100% asymmetrical but very balanced game, one side starts off stronger but will inevitably lose a war of attrition against their at first weak but growing enemy, it’s a classic tabletop trope handled excellently. Finally, it shows how a set of relatively simple rules can be manipulated to tell a range of stories and model a range of situations from a desperate last stand to a surgical assault.
Most gamers have the game that they like to show to non-gamers. For me, that’s Mysterium, for multiple reasons. Again, I know that the game has significant flaws, it can fall flat with people unwilling to or incapable of engaging with its abstract communication and suffers from a group building up a private language. The pacing of deliberation for the asymmetrical sides can make parts of the game drag and frankly sometimes need a little house ruling. But it does something very special for me, in that it allows people who don’t consider themselves to be creative become creative on a genuinely conceptual level. It is a game about creating a private language and playing with communication of meaning.
Its also a co-op experience, which is still something that while widely accepted in hobby gaming hasn’t really broken through very much into mainstream play. Ultimately though its about controlled and limited communication which is something that I find fascinating in tabletop games and game design, and it’s something that almost every other medium struggles to recreate in the manner that tabletop games do so effortlessly.
This might seem a little bit like self-promotion, but in the end, I’d not be designing and launching games on Kickstarter now if not for my experience with Mike Hutchinson and Gaslands. For those unaware, Gaslands is an Osprey games release of post-apocalyptic car-based racing and combat which can be played with toy cars on any available surface. A few years ago now, Mike Hutchinson, the game’s designer, walked into our local club looking for playtesters since he’d just sold an idea to Osprey games, and I stepped up. I did it just for the love of the game, for the love of doing something interesting and real, but I put a lot of time and effort into helping Mike out. I didn’t expect anything back from it, although I’ve gotten an enormous amount from it including not only direct rewards and engagement with the tabletop community but also what I consider a good friendship (though Mike might say otherwise).
From helping develop the game I also helped show it at conventions around the country, which gave me the chance to meet and work with people within the hobby, get to know the convention scene and develop the confidence to go out on my own. When Gaslands became the hit that it has it showed me that I had something to contribute to a successful game and even enough to develop my own small projects. I gave to Gaslands for no other reason than because it was something that I thought deserved to exist in the hobby, and through it I’ve broken, to some small degree, into the hobby as a publisher. In many ways it was the most influential game so far in my personal and ongoing history of game design, and it taught me to be generous with my time. I’ve met a huge array of interested and generous people in game design, and I’m happy to say that those who are most giving of their time and effort also seem to be some of the most successful.
There are, of course, a huge number of other games that I could list as personal influences. Like most game designers I’d say that whatever game I’m working on at any given moment is a huge influence on my thinking about games. Song of Tales, my next full game release has been a massive influence on my thinking about games recently, and the next game after that, or the one after that has me thinking of new mechanics and ideas. Hanabi blew me away in its brilliant single idea simplicity, Risk Legacy shifted what I thought of how a game could be personal to a player and Ravens of Thri Sahashri showed me how relationships of power and engagement could shift in a game. Those and probably a hundred more the longer I’d think about it.
So, I wrote this article because of the personal influences listed in someone else’s blog, what are your personal most influential games ever? If you had to write your own one of these, not based on which games changed the industry, but which ones changed you into a gamer? Which bought you into the hobby and then turned what you thought about it on its head?