Immersion is a goal for many a game designer, but more importantly many a player – and hence a topic of many a board game debate. But I think a few points around immersion are often overlooked – with others held in too high regard.
Listen to any conversation on immersion and two things will soon surface: very long games and licensed games. But are these really creating immersion?
Licensed games probably have a stronger argument for creating immersion – but it is very often the license itself that is creating the immersion, not the game. Films – especially sci-fi and fantasy ones – are brilliant at creating immersion so it stands to reason games that take you back to scenes involving those characters will do the same, even if the game itself is crappy.
Long games, I would argue, are rarely immersive at all. People talk of lengthy games of Civ, Mage Knight, Eclipse and Arkham Horror as being immersive but I don’t see it. Having a story to tell afterwards does not mean you were immersed: it means you spent a day of your life doing it so want to talk about it afterwards. These games have time in which to create a story – but that isn’t the same as being immersed.
Did you lose yourself in the world? Did you feel empathy with your character? Did you feel genuine emotion about situations that arose? Probably not. It’s the same with Arabian Nights – a game I very much enjoy but don’t feel is particularly immersive. It’s fun, and creates stories, but again – how is that immersion?
For real immersion you’re safe to turn to role-playing games – which again have a long tradition of lengthy fantasy campaigns. Players have traditionally developed a particular character and world over time, which is clearly going to help with immersion.
But in more recent times some popular RPGs have broken this mould – the classic example being Fiasco. Here players take on the lives of small town people living Coen Brothers film style lives in any setting you like – the kicker being that you cut to the chase and that one session can very much stand completely alone from another.
In board games, an interesting example is Netrunner. A shortish card game set in a cyberpunk world, it has no film license, epic duration or fancy components to help it along. So how does it manage to feel immersive to so many of its players?
I think what both Fiasco and Netrunner do so well is set a scene you can immediately immerse yourself in – and then give you the tools in which to complete the job. Fiasco knows you need a set up, so it gives you it – then leaves most of the crap like dice and character sheets to one side and lets you use the important thing: your imagination.
Netrunner gives you a scenario and then hands you the building blocks to recreate what’s actually happening: the cards are great at acting as building blocks for your computer systems as you try and outfox your opponent. The bluff and counter-bluff fit the theme, as does the ebb and flow of creating and breaking down firewalls and code. It just fits – while one-on-one games always have a better chance of creating tension.
Playing Firefly, Mage Knight or Civ isn’t immersive, it’s mechanical – as is flicking through the book in Arabian Knights while people twiddle their thumbs. And don’t get me wrong – I think all but Firefly in that list are great games. They’re just not really immersive (I’m sure some will claim immersion here still, but I’m talking about the majority of players).
So for me, to create a really immersive board game, you need to set up a simple yet tense scenario and then add mechanics that in many ways mirror the actions you would actually be doing in that scenario. Not easy – but as Netrunner shows, far from impossible. And not requiring of a four-hour play time or a film license to help things along.