Four great sources of tension in board games

It’s the end of a particularly close game. You’ve drafted your cards, or placed your troops, or planned your final worker placement sequence. You’re setting up a major comeback. Only a few turns stand between you and victory (if, of course, everything goes your way). You show your hand, or roll your dice, or place your worker, and look for your opponent’s eyes to give away whether you’ve managed to pull it off . . .

pax-porfiriana-mark-scott

It’s that moment before raising your hands in victory or hanging your head in defeat that creates one of the most important feelings in gaming: tension. Wondering if your opponent has seen through your ruse. Hoping they didn’t draw the card that will kill your plan. Willing the dice to come up sixes.

Your heart rate goes up. You sit closer to the edge of your chair. Maybe your hands shake a little. That tiny burst of adrenaline, that tightening of the muscles in your jaw—that’s what makes victory sweet (and defeat, if not bitter, just a little stinging).

Of course, there’s a wide range of levels of tension within games. I find Viticulture to be very relaxing—the theme is pastoral, the turns are methodical, and competing to see who can harvest first doesn’t tend to raise my blood pressure. But there’s still a race to see who can fill that last order, and tension does accrue throughout the game.

On the other hand, you have Space Alert, a game I learned recently. A soundtrack with blaring alarm klaxons, real-time decision making, a countdown timer, unexpected threats and opportunities, miscommunications . . . it’s a game so tense it borders on (or, in many cases, charges directly into) stressful.

space-alert

Between these two extremes lies a plethora of games that build tension slowly, escalating throughout play, eventually crescendoing to a tense finish. Games like Pandemic, which I’ll discuss in just a moment.

Uncovering why we love tension and suspense is a fascinating psychological endeavor. It may activate specifically social parts of our brain. It could be related to theory of mind, which allows us to take other people’s (including characters’) perspectives. It may just be that this specific type of tension is novel—and therefore interesting—to our brains. Whatever the reason, this tension is highly alluring, and we love it.

Movies, books, theater productions, TV . . . tension keeps us coming back, even if we know how the situation gets resolved. It can also keep us coming back to games.

I’ve been thinking about tension in board games for a while now, but only since I’ve played a few new games have my thoughts begun to crystallize. There are many facets of tension that deserve discussion, but I want to focus here on some of the methods for generating tension that I’ve enjoyed lately.

The Countdown

There’s a reason so many Doctor Who episodes end with a countdown—it really ratchets up the tension. The same is true of games. Pandemic is an excellent example. As the deck gets smaller, the players move closer to defeat. Watching other players draw cards is like listening to a bomb ticking its way toward detonation. It’s simple, it’s very clear, and there’s no mistaking that time is running out.

pandemic

This is especially true because the players have no choice but to draw at the end of every turn. A similar mechanic is seen in War Co., in which a player loses the game when their deck has been depleted. The catch is that players must discard at the end of their turn, inching them slowly toward defeat every round.

A countdown isn’t always as clear as these examples; Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings game presents a visual form of countdown where the proximity of the ringbearer and Sauron indicates the impending end of the game. As they get closer, the countdown timer gets lower.

As the game’s end draws near, players are forced to act quickly, further ratcheting up the tension. The tensest games almost always end in a near-loss or a near-win, making it unclear until very near the end whether a player will win or lose (Pandemic is especially adept at this). The combination of all these factors makes a countdown—of whatever form—one of the most effective methods of inducing tension in players.

(Also, with Christmas coming up, be sure to have a copy of Pandemic [$25 on Amazon] and the In the Lab expansion [$26 on Amazon] at your house. It’s a great game for families.)

Decision Space

Another element that designers can introduce to increase tension is, as my friend Mark called it, a “crowded decision space.” Even without a countdown, players know that the game will end. And with a large number of options comes pressure to make the most of each choice.

Most games with a significant number of options also include multiple paths to victory (Scythe comes to mind here), which adds another level of uncertainty. Did I pick the right strategy? Have I taken the best of all available moves here? While analysis paralysis is definitely a possibility in these games, the result more often is a pleasing sense of tension.

terraforming-mars

I recently played Terraforming Mars, the hottest game in the scene right now. It uses a modified version of this principle, combined with a countdown, to create escalating tension. The beginning of the game feels pretty relaxed, but once you’ve started your terraforming process and your resource generation accelerates, the number of options explodes as time starts to run out—a combination that really amps up the tension as both players are trying to maximize their score.

Hidden Information

One of the mechanics I really enjoy for adding tension is hidden information. The first game that comes immediately to mind is Scotland Yard—one player is moving around London, and the other players are trying to catch him. They just don’t know where he is. They need to puzzle out his whereabouts and do their best to trap him before time runs out by reasoning through what little information they’re given.

scotland-yard-box

There are a lot of deduction games like this: Letters from WhitechapelFury of DraculaBattlestar GalacticaThe Resistance . . . it’s a popular mechanic. But information doesn’t always have to be completely hidden from players to add tension.

For example, in Scythe, it can be very difficult to tell who’s in the lead near the end of the game. The complicated end-game scoring combined with the fact that no player is required to share how much money he has means players need to make a guess at who’s leading. I found Three Kingdoms Redux to be similar; in the game I played, we all thought that I was in the lead, but I ended up coming in last.

Not knowing the exact state of the game means players are kept guessing and that they’re constantly re-evaluating plans, which adds tension. Knowing that you’re in the lead by a large margin means you don’t have to worry too much—not having any idea where you are in the standings keeps you on your toes.

Complex Planning

This one goes back to my Star Wars CCG days, but it’s definitely applicable to a number of board games as well. In SW:CCG, each turn can be remarkably complex, especially in the mid-game. Winning even a single battle can require that a player play a number of cards in the correct order, draw beneficial cards from the top of the deck, and not face too many surprises from the opponent.

swccg-endor
Image credit: Michelle via Flickr.

Each turn has a huge number of decisions to make, which echoes the point about crowded decision spaces above. But because a lot of decisions are made in sequence, there’s room for even more tension—if that sequence gets disrupted, things can spin out of control quickly. Space Alert is much the same way; if you miss a shot early in the game because an enemy ship is out of range, that can throw off everything else you did related to that enemy. If you forget to fire up the reactor or activate the shields, a number of other moves can become useless.

Much like hidden information, the need for complex planning keeps players re-evaluating the situations present on the board and constantly thinking about how they’ll react to problems that crop up. If you come upon a situation you weren’t prepared for, there can be hell to pay.

Your Favorite Sources of Tension

As I said, I still have a lot of thinking to do about tension in board games. There are many other factors that contribute besides the mechanisms I pointed out above, but they’re definitely four of my favorite. I got quite a few responses on Twitter when I last asked about players’ favorite sources of tension, but I’d love to hear more about it!

Let me know what you think about tense games in the comments below or give me a shout on Twitter.

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