Badly Expressed

Stephen Fry once wrote: “A true thing badly expressed becomes a lie.” Readers of these posts, in the past, future, and at this precise moment in time, will be experienced with the proof of this theorem in regards to language, but I think the idea holds true when broadened to just about any other medium or craft. Including games.

What constitutes one such dreadfully articulated game will change with the player. I’d wager most people are willing to ignore, or aren’t even aware of, many of the minor annoyances that, for me, are mortared together one by one into a brick outhouse. And, though there is little grey area between an actual truth and a provable falsehood, the same cannot be said for games; some games are true enough, others are lies we still like to believe. So, no, it’s not a perfect metaphor for the craft of game design, but I do believe it holds true on an individual level.

The Legendary series of games, which I enjoy in the right circumstances, released a Firefly version of their Encounters system, in which you build decks consisting of cards of Serenity’s crew and play through the (regrettably paltry) fourteen episodes. A ruleset I enjoy, minor campaign systems I relish, and a theme I always long to revisit made this game a surefire true thing.

But the universally maligned art that presumes to represent this beloved cast of characters has rendered my time with it nearly entertainment-free.

I recently acquired the new Buffy the Vampire Slayer board game. It’s simple cooperative fun, nothing outstanding or particularly original, but an enjoyable game that gets a pass for a theme the family enjoys.

But the rulebook asymptotes the line of unusability, which is made all the greater a gaffe due to the simplicity of the game. The characters are held upright by plastic clamps that, once fully in position, cover up the text on the standee, leaving serifs jutting out like Czech hedgehogs and proving that no one actually tried this before printing the game. And only one of these clamps is provided for the cardboard embodiment of the game’s central villain; challenging different evils means constantly putting undue wear on the tokens by swapping around clamps that can be so hard to squeeze into place that sometimes you end up with a diamond. Brick after brick after brick.

I did say my badly-expressed-threshold is pretty low.

Quite by accident I’ve threaded a thematic line between my choice of examples such that I have to stop, given that I have not played any other board games based on Whedon-created properties.

I find that the corollary to Fry’s statement, that a lie beautifully expressed becomes a truth, to be as equally more true for language as it is less true for games. Gussied up lies are believed all the time, but I find far fewer examples of bad games that I nevertheless enjoy due to solid rules, or nice components, or the feeling that at least someone put some thought into this.

What ultimately disappoints me the most is the thought of what these games could have been. What would they look like were they a truth beautifully told? And how simple would it have been to edit that which was badly expressed?