Low Effort Creativity in Tabletop Games

Low Effort Creativity in Tabletop Games

When you’ve been playing games all your life like I have, maybe it’s a foregone conclusion that new mechanisms are a big deal. Sure, I love an interesting theme that is well-implemented. Most of the time, though, it’s not enough. I like to see new ideas and I can admire them even when the game isn’t necessarily my cup of tea. For example, I’ve often spoken about my admiration for the design of Power Grid even if I do not find playing the game to be much fun.

Thankfully, I like all the games on this list that pleasantly embody a concept I call “Low Effort Creativity” (LEC). As a marketer and product designer working in social media-focused technology, I have used this term to describe apps like Instagram where the simple application of a filter onto an image makes users feel like they had created something special. And maybe they have; what mattered is that sense of creativity being expressed, which is more important than what others think of their creation.

People do the dumbest stuff on Instagram and think they’re being clever.

In game design, I see LEC manifesting as a way of giving players something that engages their creativity without building from the ground up. Instead, they’re empowered to make a contribution that gives them an output that is uniquely their own.

Dungeons and Drawings

Despite my passionate love for board games, I first thought about this concept after playing a role playing game. Strictly speaking, it’s not a proper RPG, where high-effort creativity is common. There, players come up with their own characters, a back story and maybe even act things out in a bigger way. Four Against Darkness brings the dungeons and maybe some dragons, but is short on the acting and storytelling.

What it does bring into the mix, however, is a pleasant solo experience with an outcome I didn’t expect. I’m not speaking of the success of my band of four adventurers who delved into the cave of some kobolds. No, I was surprised to find out that the process of wandering in the dungeon was going to lead me to creating something mildly artistic.

4AD, as the serious players call it (a moniker which throws me off as a fan of the British record label with that same name), gives the player a chance to quickly put together a four-person adventure party and start into a dungeon with the simple roll of two dice. Those values tell you the type of entrance, corridor or room you are entering, and another roll or two will tell you if there are monsters and loot to be had. It’s not very “RPG” but it is a pleasant pastime, especially with the solid adventures written by andrea sfiligoi (the designer) and his online cadre of creators who are taking the game in a variety of directions. This concept in itself is admirable and I really love to see such deep community involvement in creatively expanding what can be done with this light game system.

The most compelling part of the 4AD experience is drawing your dungeon on graph paper. Sure, the dice tell you the shape of the room, and what’s inside, and all monsters and such are cleverly denoted by certain symbols. The player gets a chance to show off their artistic side in the depiction of the map.

While I’m no artist, I find this part of the game a lot of fun as I track my progress through dungeons, caves, and castles. My own drawings are just lousy but I’ve seen gorgeous renderings online by talented folks who have brought their own flair to the design and decorations of their dungeon. With the game and its mechanisms as inspiration, players get a chance to engage in some low-effort creativity to make their final map a creation worthy of keeping around to enjoy.

A Conspiracy of Cartographers?

A similar tack is taken with Cartographers, a fine new game that released at Gen Con 2019 to popular acclaim (due out to stores Labor Day Weekend). Like 4AD, Cartographers (from Thunderworks Games) asks its players to get out the pencil and fill in their map with renderings of the different types of terrain designated by turns of some game cards.

Like roll-and-write games, Cartographers players pick where the selected terrain goes but unlike most of those games where I box is filled in, X’d or checked off, here players get to draw trees, water, and other terrain types onto their boards to score points based on designated parameters each quarter of the game. As you progress, your map gets filled with your artwork and, again, while I didn’t have the best looking map, I had a lot of fun with the drawing and wanted to play again promptly. While the variations on goals and terrain offers the replay value, I think the little bit of creativity you get to express helps make the game more enjoyable.

The Creative Call

While both of the aforementioned games ride on your drawing skills (or enjoyment drawing regardless of your skill, as in my case), Brotherwise Games’ Call to Adventure instead engages one’s storytelling skills. In fact, the very name of the game is attractively drawn from the first stage in Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, from a book that should be ready by all writers and storytellers.

I don’t know about that sequel, the First Threshold.

As with the other games, players are given some parameters on which to hang their creative efforts; Call to Adventure (reviewed here on BGB) asks players to acquire cards that collectively tell the story of their character, from their origin and early days, through the driving force that motivates them, and ultimately to their destiny and the crowning achievements of their quest to get there.

This is played out in simple but clever game play, using throwing runes to acquire various traits, defeat certain challenges, and foil the plans of villainous adversaries as you collect the stories components of your character’s life. The mechanisms are clean and well-implemented but the fun begins when the game ends and you are encouraged to tell your character’s story.

The nine cards you collect, three each for the three stages of the character’s life give you plenty of material with which to work. This isn’t for everyone but I’ve really enjoyed the fact that you can come up with something special by selecting what kind of character you want to be from the various options that come up. You might want to be a hero but find the road hard. You can focus on being an anti-hero, making choices that could be interpreted different ways.

Or you can go flat-out evil and try to be a force for the dark side of life. The choice is yours and it allows you to tailor the story you want to tell at the game’s end. Yes, there are points to count at the end and someone ‘wins.’ But like many of the best games around, it’s most about how you play, what your individual experience delivers, and your own creative way of conveying your story at the end.

Creative Energy Engaged

All three of these games are tapping into the concept effectively, letting players have a bit of a say in the experience they get while gaming on the tabletop. Yes, Legacy games can feel like your own thing because the order in which you experience things and sometimes what you discover versus the next person might vary. Yet, it’s a story you are following. Similarly, the attractive Crossroads mechanism in some Plaid Hat games makes the game experience vary strongly, but it doesn’t engage one’s creativity as the previously mentioned games do.

Was this already present in Pictionary or Telestrations, games that had you drawing up a storm every turn? Maybe, because you could enjoy the artwork produced. But since both of those games have a time element going on, they don’t offer the players a chance to focus on the art instead of the answer delivered at breakneck speed.

I feel like the games I referenced offer the opportunity to truly engage the artistic spirit, both in the slow individual play of 4AD that allows one to take their time drawing up the elements of their dungeon or the chance to build up a story in Call to Adventure over the course of the 45-60 minute play time.

I am excited to see more opportunities for board game and tabletop designers in general to come up with new mechanisms that tap into the notion of this low-effort creativity, which unlocks the fun of owning part of the game experience beyond just the decisions of how to spend cubes each turn or which spot to drop a Meeple on. Let’s see what you’ve got, designers…

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