Don’t you love it when designers put games in your game so you can game while you game? Whether board games are used to enhance the setting, make a joke, or change the pace of a video game, these ten video games add a little analog gameplay to their digital narratives.
1. Assassin’s Creed III – Nine Men’s Morris
Nine Men’s Morris is a very old game, at least as old as the Holy Roman Empire. So when a member of an ancient order of Assassins encounters the game in colonial New England it evokes a light touch of history and mystery.
Assassin’s Creed III explores the “hidden” history behind the events of American Revolutionary War, influenced by shadowy organizations like the Knights Templar. The game developers could easily gone with checkers or cards for their mini-games, but Nine Men’s Morris shares a lineage with the major characters and reinforces the theme of Crusade-era Italy impacting American history.
2. MASS EFFECT 3 – KEPESH-YAKSHI
Kepesh-Yakshi is a kind of holo-strategy game along the lines of the X-Wing minis game. Mass Effect 3 uses the board game to pit two ideologies against each other. T’Suzsa represents the intellectual elite of the Asari and plays against Samantha Traynor, a Military Comm specialist.
T’Suzsa berates Traynor for joining a military vessel instead of pursuing academia. Her position that intellectuals are more clever than military thugs, T’Suzsa expects a clean victory and is, instead, soundly defeated.
Traynor’s victory makes the point that academia isn’t the only path to knowledge, and that each person has strengths regardless of their background.
3. Beyond Good and Evil – Three Coconut Monty
Peepers is a blind grifter running the classic shell game at the Akuda Bar. You can earn some easy units, though it quickly becomes apparent that everything isn’t as it seems. Mention the right code phrase and Peepers passes you a key and instructions through the coconut shell. His Three Coconut Monty is the checkpoint for IRIS HQ, the resistance underground.
Having a game running helps Peepers feel less conspicuous in a busy bar, and gives the player a reason to interact with him. Beyond Good and Evil is a game of mystery and intrigue, where nothing and noone is quite what they seem; it’s no coincidence that you have to play a shell game the first time you encounter an organization that claims to have answers.
4. THE SIMS – CHESS
Chess has been in every iteration of The Sims. It’s always provided a path for Sims to improve their logic and reasoning attributes. I appreciate that the designers recognize that the practical application of logic in a game setting is more effective than just reading about logic.
The coolest Chess moment is in Sims 3, where you can play chess with Death over the fate of a newly deceased Sim. Win and the Sim’s life will be spared, which is awfully good natured of him; though on the other hand he’ll also spare unlucky Sim’s simply because he finds their struggles entertaining.
5. Final Fantasy VIII – Triple Triad
Triple Triad is a digital CCG that shows up in Final Fantasy VIII, and is the most insane card game to pop up in a video game. The game itself is pretty straightforward. It’s a CCG played on a 3×3 grid, and you want to make sure your numbers are better than your opponent’s numbers.
As you grind dungeons and embark on a world-saving quest, you can’t throw a moogle without stumbling onto a pile of Triple Triad cards. The whole world of Final Fantasy VIII is obsessed with Triple Triad, which has a living breathing culture built into the setting.
Certain side quests revolve around the card game, certain areas have regional rules, and as the player learns different styles of play, they spread that type of Triple Triad from one region to the next. It’s an incredible microcosm of gaming culture; unfortunately it’s built into a game best known for “not being Final Fantasy 7”.
6. World of Warcraft – Hearthstone
Hearthstone is an actual digital CCG on iOS, and Blizzard devs have made a really solid game. I won’t go near it. I put in my time in Azeroth; I know how clever the Blizzard devs are. I am well aware of the dark wizardry Blizzard would work on me to steal my time and my money. No thank you.
That being said, it’s clever how Hearthstone is a game about World of Warcraft that is also in-universe. Players in WoW can buy a Hearthstone board and a few of them can be spotted in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Currently, Hearthstone is just a vanity item in WoW, a nice nod to the in-universe lore. You can’t actually play Hearthstone within Wow, which is a small mercy from Blizzard.
You saw what has already been done with Triple Triad: devs can build a CCG into the very fabric of the world. I shudder to think what would happen if Blizzard combined their addictive card game with their addictive MMO.
7. Dragon Age:Origins – Wicked Grace
In Dragon Age:Origins the player plays Wicked Grace against Isabela, a pirate captain, for the right to be trained by her. She actually gives a clever reasoning for why she uses a card game instead of sword-fighting.
If you fought and she won, you would not be worthy to teach, but if you won she would have nothing to teach you. The solution? Wicked Grace.
The game itself is lackluster. You talk to her to initiate the game, you shuffle a deck and eventually you both show your hands, which results in a handful of nonsense words and the result that one hand is better than the other.
The clever bit is that you can’t beat Isabela, because she cheats. However, if you have the right skills, you can out cheat her. If you have a high dexterity score, you can catch her in the act of cheating. If you’re cunning, you can bluff your way to victory. If you have the stealing skill, you can cheat a better hand than her. It’s a clever form of puzzle solving, and shows that a game can be played in many different ways.
8. Fall Out 4- Blast Radius
Blast Radius is a perfect addition to Fallout 4’s tongue-in-cheek tone about the inevitability of nuclear devastation. It matches the actual tone deaf attempts that were made in the 50’s to educate people about the threats of the Cold War (remember to hide under your desk when the bomb drops).
Interesting to note, Massachusetts was home to Parker Brothers; a great deal of the early American board game industry started in and around Boston. So it’s not at all surprising that Fallout 4 would include a nod to board games in their post-apocalyptic version of Beantown.
While no playable version of the game exists, it’s not hard to imagine a straightforward game of dice and spinners. I’ll let the back of the box speak for itself.
“An exciting new board game that brings friends, family, and nuclear explosions together. The first player to make it to a safe distance will survive. The rest will perish. Do you have what it takes?”
9. Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Cards
Majora’s Mask is an awesome game, half dungeon diving and half small town storytelling. The story of Gorman is of particular interest here.
Gorman left the family farm to pursue a life in show business, but the impending doom of Clocktown has canceled his booking and sent him into a deep depression. He can’t even bring himself to inform his troupe. He drinks his sorrows away, trying to drown the pain one glass at a time.
Play him a certain song, and he’ll remember why he got into show business. Instead of sulking, you’ll find Gorman casually playing cards with the other members of his troupe. They’ll be back on the road, pursuing the dream. The cards are a nice touch, showing how Gorman’s recovery isn’t just a personal thing, but also impacts his friends. It’s a nice moment.
10. Fable III – Hollows and Hobbes
If you already lived in a fantasy setting, would you feel compelled to play a game like Dungeons and Dragons? In Fable 3, the answer is “yes”. Easily the most entertaining thing in Fable III is the quest known as “The Game”. Where three game enthusiasts (nerds) build a miniature landscape, shrink you down to scale, and then walk you through an incredibly amateur D&D campaign.
From the narration to the cardboard NPC standees, it’s a hilarious portrayal of role playing. At the behest of the nerds, you hack and slash your way through early teenage storytelling. It plays out like everyone’s first encounter in D&D, except of course the bit where you spend days on character creation and then quit before even starting.
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