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Mechanics vs. Narrative in Strategy Games

I want to talk about a game which I have come to admire a great deal, Fantasy Flight's War of the Ring (WotR) board game. What really impresses me with this game is the degree to which gameplay and narrative have been successful merged. The game does have some drawbacks, but that's not what I'm interested in talking about here.

The designers of this game knew that narrative is as essential as geography to Tolkein's setting, set out to make a game that captured what they loved about Tolkein and succeeded. The mechanics of the game reinforce the central storyline (and, notably, some key alternatives, such as reinforcing the Ring in Minas Tirith, or even rousing the Rangers and the Shire to sack Angband).

Narrative is a sadly neglected aspect of epic strategy games. In Civilization, for example, a nod is made to the "storyline" of world history, but the narrative is eventually subsumed in the mechanics. The tech tree, for example, is meant to reinforce the historical storyline but ends up reducing the most interesting aspects of that storyline to a bare mechanic.

In a recent game of WotR I found myself contemplating a retreat to Helm's deep in the face of an Uruk-hai onslaught. Only after the fact did I realize that I had re-enacted Theoden's reasoning in Lord of the Rings. In WotR, a player may move two armies with an army dice, or commit one attack. In many cases this forces Rohan to choose between consolidating its armies in Helm's Deep or being forced to attack Orthanc with only a portion of its forces. I strongly suspect that the designers constructed the map to make just such a situation possible. This is just one example of the subtle ways in which WotR encourages the narrative aspect.

Contrast this to Civ which, in making a general stab at all of history, makes only a mediocre job of imaging the race to nuclear power, and a poor job of everything else.

As an aside, Europa Universalis II does a great job of capturing the narrative of history in a strategy game, as does their WWII game, Hearts of Iron II.

The trade off is that you need to be prepared to sacrifice consistent mechanics to achieve a strong narrative. Civ is weak in narrative precisely because its mechanics are so consistent. Sure, there are unique wonders and interesting historical technologies, but because they must be available to all players and somewhat balanced, their narrative power is diluted. In Europa Universalis, by contrast, there are hundreds of historical events and contingencies (and their "non-historical" alternatives hard coded into the game), often effecting only one nation, religion, or region.

This is an issue I'm struggling with right now in the creation of my own strategy PBEM Sea of Stars. On the one hand I want a consistent wargaming experience to be available, on the other hand, I want a strong narrative. What I want to know is how much of the one do I have to sacrifice to get the other.


Tony, this is big, HUGE, important topic and I have a lot to say about it. Enough to fill a post of my own, at least.

Thanks for brining this up. I'll try to organize my thoughts and respond soon.

In brief: I see no schism between the two things, where gaming is concerned. The acts of "storytelling" and "wargaming" are in fact the same thing (while we're playing a game, mind you).

Sounds crazy? I'll elaborate.

I should have known.

Someone at the Forge has already said everything that I need to say. I'll post a link to it in another post.

Good post (above). I'm going to ruminate on that a bit.

A practical matter related to this topic and relevant to strategy PBEM (and board games) is the presence of "arbitrary" mechanics.

Civ, which has a very scientific view, shies away from arbitrarness. Each nation/player has (in theory) access to the very same opportunities, ignoring the random factor of the map (which is random, and therefore "fair").

WotR totally throws these concepts of fairness out the window. Each team, for example, has cards only it can play that introduce arbitrary story elements into the game (e.g. Morodor doesn't get to use Ents). Europa Universalis does the same with nation-specific historical events.

In RPG, the problem doesn't exist in this form. Narrative isn't mechanical in RPGs, it comes from the GM and the players. Mechanics support and guide this collaboration, but don't determine story. Yes, there are exceptions, but I think they are more or less trivial.

Tony, your last paragraph above confuses the heck out of me. I don't see how the cards in WotR "determine story" AND I've played RPGs where the mechanics did, in fact, "determine story."

I suspect that we may mean different things when we say "story."

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