AKA: “What I learned about tabletop game design from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild“
I have been a fan of The Legend of Zelda since its first inception thirty years ago. I fondly remember exploring 8-bit Hyrule with my dad when I was in my early years of grade school, burning every bush and bombing every pixelated square on every screen in our attempt to find and map out every secret we could find. So to say that I was excited to play Breath of the Wild is a bit of an understatement; in fact, I would posit that I have been more excited about this Zelda game than about any since the series expanded into the third dimension with Ocarina of Time almost twenty years ago.
I am around sixty hours in to Breath of the Wild, and I have completed over half of the narrative of the game (or so I figure from what I know at this point). I have been spending a lot of time on side quests and exploring the map of Hyrule, and I know that I have a lot of game left to play, but I would easily rank it as one of the best games in the series and possibly of all-time despite how much of the game I have left to discover. I cannot ever remember a game that was so immersive and in which it was so easy to lose myself for hours at a time.
Despite the fact that I have come nowhere near to completing the game, I feel like I already have experienced so much and that, even were I to stop playing it now, that I would rank it as one of my favourite games ever. In addition, I have realized that I have learned a lot from the game that I can connect to the world of game design, particularly in regard to board games. Here, then, are the five (spoiler-free) lessons I have learned about board game design from Breath of the Wild.
1. Choice is significant. Breath of the Wild purported to be the first Zelda since the original to attempt to give the player a truly open-world experience, and I think it has succeeded. Previous games in the series – particularly A Link Between Worlds – have given elements of choice, but Breath of the Wild has really managed to create the openness that has been elusive in the series for so long. There is no one narrative direction that the game takes, and there is in fact some obfuscation of the directions that the player can take. This openness is perhaps the greatest achievement of the game, which is saying something, considering how technically advanced it is.
In the same way, it is incumbent on a well-designed board game to not have a defined narrative trajectory or strategy. Games may have well-established paths to victory, but balanced games manage to avoid the pitfall of having a “best” opening move. Many designers manage this by including variation within the game itself, so that there is not one particular best move or strategy. Examples include the variety of Quests and Lords in Lords of Waterdeep; the variation in the rounds in each stage of Agricola; or the random starting worlds and goals in Race for the Galaxy.
But beyond the initial set-up conditions of the game, the game should provide choice in as many decisions as possible. There should rarely be a sense that there is only one possibility for a move, or that the limitation of possibilities is only through the choices that have been made rather than the game’s design. The popular cooperative game Pandemic does occasionally fall into this trap of there being a “best” move and that several players may have their turns decided well ahead of time, but there is still enough variation within the possibilities of the game, as well as in the various expansion modules that can be added, that any overbearing narrative direction can be at least somewhat averted; and even if there is a sense that some rounds are predestined for a result (usually a loss), there is always the chance to start all over again and try to write a new story with a new game.
2. Limit the busywork. One of the problems that has plagued the Legend of Zelda series, particularly in recent entries such as Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, is that there has been an artificial extension of gameplay length through busywork, which often comes in the form of “delivery” tasks – do this thing and bring it back to me, then go here, then come back, and so forth. These kinds of tasks are to some extent unavoidable in games like Zelda that are driven by narrative, but there is a certain level of numbness that tends to come after the fifth repetition of an easy, pointless task.
There are a few moments that I have experienced so far that evoke that feeling in Breath of the Wild, but the designers have done well to limit those kinds of tasks and to change the feeling toward them even in the circumstances in which they occur. The few tasks that have that sense are either smaller side quests, or there is a somewhat substantial puzzle or combat element included in the adventure, which makes it more interesting. Overall, there is very little of the sense of pedantry that came to characterize the experience of those last two epic Zelda games, and Breath of the Wild is far better for it.
In the same way, board game designers can fall suspect to this kind of tedium in some of the choices that they make in their games, and it’s important that even small actions have a sense of purpose and direction and do not feel like they are merely doing things for the sake of doing them. There are cases, of course, in which an engine requires there to be a number of smaller less consequential actions to be taken, but that possible sense of tedium can also be negated by including other additional actions or even interactive elements.
Take Lords of Waterdeep (again) as a great example of this defiance of tedium. Quests often require that players take several minor actions of collecting cubes (which I make sure to refer to as Clerics, Rogues, Fighters, and Wizards to do my best to maintain as much thematic integrity as possible) or gold in order to complete their quests. Taken on their own, these actions could seem somewhat boring or tedious, but the fact that players are building up to larger quests makes them more significant. In addition, the base game adds in the Intrigue cards, Start player, and additional buildings as ways to spice up the action and remove the tedium. The Scoundrels of Skullport expansion adds two modules that add in new placement options as well as new mechanics that make the game even more interesting and that I would argue do not add significantly enough to the complexity of the game to warrant not playing with them.
There are some players, of course, who still feel like Lords of Waterdeep is a JASE game (“Just Another Soulless Euro”), and they still criticize it as being pedantic for requiring these kinds of actions in the same way that others criticize games like Agricola or many other strategic games that involve this kind of methodical engine building. My response to those critics – as well as to anyone who is not a big fan of the style of The Legend of Zelda games – is that they are responding more to the type of game that it is rather than the mechanics within the games, and that these kinds of games are just as engrossing, but in a different way.
3. A gentle learning curve is important. Despite the fact that Link wakes up in Breath of the Wild with no armor, no equipment, and no sense of where or when he is, much less what is going on, the game still presents a gentle learning curve for the player. There are some limits placed on the first few hours of exploration that allow the player to experience various aspects of Hyrule in a somewhat friendlier way before the map opens up, and the game itself even seems to feature a gentler approach that increases in difficulty the further out the player ventures from the starting point.
I will say, though, that I find it interesting that the decision to make the game more open-world has the added intriguing factor that the “dungeons” do not seem to increase in difficulty, since the player could play any one of them first; the first, then, is actually arguably the “hardest” to complete, and the experiences a player has actually makes subsequent adventures more accessible (at least so far). There are also some very significant challenges in monsters that the player encounters early in the game that do become easier as the game goes on, and the game is careful to ensure that newer players do have the opportunity to avoid overly difficult situations early on in order to preserve that gentler learning curve.
This concept of a learning curve is probably one of the biggest impediments to people learning new games or playing board games in general. I often hear people commenting on how complicated a game looks just because it has a lot of pieces, or that it has a rule book that is longer than a few pages, regardless of how intuitive a game may actually be.
Although this gentle learning curve can be difficult to achieve within a board game, many designers have found a way to do it both within a game as well as on a meta-level using different strategies such as expansions or legacy decks. I think particularly of the designs of Uwe Rosenberg, who has created several large strategy games that have achieved widespread success and acclaim and whose first big strategic hit was Agricola back in 2007.
Rosenberg knew that Agricola would have a steep learning curve for many players, so he incorporated a Family Game variant that made the game easier to play. He also divided the cards into decks based on their relative complexity, giving the player further control over how the learning curve unfolds. (I myself have still not used the Complex “K” or Interactive “I” deck, mainly because I am often teaching the game to players who need a gentler learning experience.)
Despite the already immense amount of material in the game itself, he even designed a large expansion – Farmers of the Moor – that introduced new mechanics and resources to manage, and another dozen or more smaller decks of cards that further extend the gameplay of the game. But Rosenberg’s management of the learning curve did not stop there. He later designed a two-player version of the game that can be used to ease newer players into the mechanics of the game, as well as a more complex implementation of the game – Caverna: The Cave Farmers – that can be used as a step beyond Agricola. He has also designed other games that are significantly more complex than those games that can serve as a step beyond them, therein extending the learning curve beyond what was already established.
Another more recent example of the implementation of a learning curve is in games with a legacy component. Legacy games are a relatively recent style of game in which a larger narrative unfolds as the game ensues from session to session; one play affects future plays through permanent modification of the game by adding stickers, destroying cards, or various other methods. The 2015 hit Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (and the upcoming Season 2) are a great example of this learning curve in action. They had the advantage of being based on a well-established popular property (Pandemic), but the brilliance of the game is how they take the basic ideas of Pandemic and its expansions and have them unfold alongside new developments that occur right up until the last play as the game takes its unexpected course.
4. Guideposts are useful. Breath of the Wild has more success as an open-world endeavour than almost any other games in The Legend of Zelda series, but its success is incumbent upon making the world accessible, particularly with all of the possibilities that are available.
Link starts his journey with a personal device much like a tablet that allows him to interact with the world around him, but the game also takes care to give the player other assorted guideposts to help them out in their journey. That includes information gleaned from conversations with various non-playable characters, visual cues such as actual signs and posts, and items that can be picked up along the way. They serve a good purpose for guidance for the player, especially in the early going, and they never feel overwhelming or overly directed (unlike the nagging of Fi, Midna, or Navi in previous games).
Board games accomplish this incorporation of guideposts in many different ways, including: scoring conditions; goals; asymmetric player powers; and starting conditions. The more variable these assorted features can be, the better the game will usually be. Perhaps the best example is Race for the Galaxy, the complex tableau-based card game with an admittedly intense learning curve. It is a brilliant game even without any expansions, though it can be very difficult for new players to understand the many strategies that are possible with all of the different cards and combinations.
Race for the Galaxy, perhaps more than most other games, requires players to have the ability to form a strategy based on the cards they draw. The game provides guideposts both in the variable starting conditions of your home world and also through the inclusion of 6-cost developments that can help players decide where to focus their efforts – that is, of course, assuming they can figure their way through the iconography. But where I find that the game really shines in terms of providing guideposts is in the first expansion of the first story arc, The Gathering Storm, which added in two types of variable goals – “Most” goals and “First” goals – that can serve as a useful guide for players to establish a strategy early on. The subsequent expansions add in further goals that add to the variability, and the end result is an almost endlessly variable game that has several ways to guide a player’s strategic choices.
5. Details matter. A big part of what makes Breath of the Wild so amazing is the attention to detail in the physics of the world and the mechanics of the game. It really is incredible that there are so many weather systems and environmental effects and different creatures and little details that create such an intricate, fascinating, engaging experience. The immersive nature of the game in its details overcome the nagging aspects of the game that don’t quite make sense except as choices in mechanics to make the gameplay smoother. (Why does Link keep dying and being reborn? How does he carry so much stuff with him all the time? How does he never seem to hurt his horse, even when he accidentally swings his sword through its side? And how does he never need to rest or take a break or lose any health or stamina by staying up through the night for months at a time?)
In board games, details about presentation matter, whether they are to enhance the immersion of the theme or even in the way that the game is presented on the shelf. With such high competition for the attention of gamers, simple details like the side of the box cover can make the difference in how much attention a game can garner, and the visual presentation and quality of components can essentially make or break a game, particularly in the highly competitive world of board game crowdfunding.
One of the best examples in recent memory is the collected work of Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, the designers of hits like Euphoria, Viticulture, and Scythe. Their work has achieved increased critical and commercial attention, and Scythe – now the number seven game on BoardGameGeek – is arguably one of the greatest success stories in the short history of Kickstarter. One of the reasons that Scythe and its predecessors have been and continue to be so popular is because they are so visually stunning and there is such attention to the detail of the presentation and quality of the components. I had the opportunity to play test Scythe before it was on Kickstarter, and I was incredibly impressed at its level of graphical detail even in its prerelease state.
Many of the most popular games on BoardGameGeek have a high level of presentation (though not all – The Castles of Burgundy is, after all, one of the least attractive games of the past decade), and board gamers are continually raving about the attention to detail. But the success of Scythe, Viticulture, and Euphoria would not have happened without attention to detail in the mechanics of the games themselves. Even the most visually amazing games tend to fade in popularity if the gameplay does not hold up to scrutiny, and each of those examples demonstrate great attention to detail in the various rules and possibilities of the game.
Breath of the Wild is certainly worthy of every accolade it has been given over the past few months. It is innovative, immersive, exhaustive, and surprisingly informative in regard to the possibilities not only of video games, but also in regard to tabletop games. The lessons that the game has taught me so far are valuable on a broad scale, but I am certain that I have even more lessons to learn before I finally finish the game.
What have you fellow Hylians learned as you have explored Hyrule?