I'm developing a list of tools and resources for ways to create emotions in players. I've divided the list into three sections: rhythm, transportation, and loss aversion. My thoughts on this subject are still evolving, so my categories may shift in the future.
Rhythm sets the mood of a game. Rhythm is the feeling of a game's mechanics during play across the whole game. Turn structure, when a strategy pays off, the amount of randomness, etc. all impact the flow of a game. Setting the mood through mechanical flow primes players to have certain emotional experiences. Games can be casual activities, intense duels, exciting adventures, and each of those types of experiences relies on a different rhythm of play. Rhythm can also be used to create investment in a game. This video talks about anticipation arcs in games. A well-crafted sense of anticipation leads to investment and excitement. (Go watch the video, because there's too much for me to break down here.) Rhythm is also powerful because once established a rhythm can be broken. Unexpectedness creates surprise. A succession of surprises can inspire a sense of discovery, however each surprise is likely to be less individually impactful than a single major plot twist. Too many surprises could just lead to a game feeling overly random. Breaks in rhythm should be carefully crafted to build the desired emotional experience.
Rhythm is mechanical. Let's take a look at theme. Transportation is what most people mean when they talk about immersion. In other words, transportation occurs when the theme 'transports' you into the world of the game. Role-play is one method that can lead to immersion, however it is not the only method. Role-play is generally an 'above the table' activity in board games. To encourage role-play, designers should focus on mechanics with player interaction that requires communication: bluffing, trading, cooperation, etc. Then, those mechanics have to be closely tied thematically to who the player is playing as. While both games have high player interaction, Sheriff of Nottingham does an excellent job encouraging role-play; Bohnanza does not. Either related to role-play or not, relationships add verisimilitude and emotional impact to games. How does a PC relate to the world around it? Worlds feel more real when characters are in relationship with the people and things around them. This is why Sheriff of Nottingham works so well. Every player knows what their relationship is to the other players in a given round. Simulative actions are more mechanical methods to create transportation. They are mechanisms that simulate a real activity (for example, the pointing mechanism in Ca$h 'n Guns). I've mentioned it before, but Gil Hova's player/avatar/agent model is an excellent look at how the relationship between theme and mechanics can affect player experiences if you want to explore this dynamic further.
Loss aversion is a psychological and economic phenomenon that has a huge impact on board game design. At its heart, loss aversion is the tenet that players are more bothered by losing something than they are excited by gaining something. There's a lot to unpack here for game designers and I highly recommend reading Achievement Relocked. The elements that jumped out to me while reading the book were the ones that provoked certain specific emotions. Clear consequences, created when actions affect the story of the game, build tension and investment because players know what they stand to gain or lose based on their decisions. Obfuscated outcomes have fewer emotional hooks (which is sometimes desirable when trying to avoid the "feels bad" experience in players). Permanence is clear consequences taken to its logical conclusion. The appeal of legacy games comes from the "permanent" effect your decisions has on the game. (Permanence is one way to enhance transportation as well.) One way to signal clear consequences of a decision is by creating scarcity. Scarcity indicates what players should value. Gaining or losing something that has clear value creates a stronger emotional response. Lastly, the endowment effect is the "tendency to give something more value because it belongs to you." Players are loathe to give up something they've been given, even if doing so is how you advance in the game. I'm going to dedicate a whole, separate post to this concept, because I think it can be leveraged to create truly interesting emotional experiences.
This is just a collection of the methods I've come across (mostly) recently that designers can use to craft emotional experiences. Obviously, I think this is a topic that deserves more focus in board game design.
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