The author enjoys creating rhythms with instruments such as the cajón and also with board games.
Music has always been an important part of my life, especially when it has a strong rhythm that quite literally moves me. Chill-out tunes have their time and place, but the endless variety of beats from a good percussion track—whether analog or electronic—continues to appeal to me, especially when listened to live.
Although Germany boasts the third largest market for music in the world, Berlin is not well known for its musicians, with the exception being hard-rockers Rammstein. Even so, when I first arrived here almost 20 years ago, one of my favorite ways to discover the “city that never sleeps” and meet its colorful residents was to explore the many unusual underground venues, and dance to whatever local band or DJ was showcased there.
It turns out that Berliners share my love of rhythmic music. Industrial complexes that were abandoned during the Cold War were turned into techno clubs after reunification and used to attract the best DJs to the city, and the largest street rave in the world was held here annually—until the city grew tired of having to pay for the clean-up afterwards.
But people here are also fascinated by music with African and Afro-American influences, ranging from World Music to Hip Hop, although the rhythm is quite different—even challenging for the Germans at times. When our youth ministry sponsored a professional-caliber gospel choir at a local high school several years ago, the vocally gifted teens had difficulties keeping their clapping and swaying synchronized. In fact, German audiences usually prefer to clap on every beat of a song rather than only on the backbeat—the way they would to a polka tune—which may be one reason why techno comes so naturally to them.
The djembé helps the Berlin gospel choir with their rhythm.
In any case, it’s interesting to see how the rhythm in music both reflects and drives the rhythm of life. Even the most non-conventional people—and Berlin is full of them—are prone to routines and rituals that are repeated every day, though they make variations or add different “fills” to keep their lives from becoming too monotonous. Our interactions with each other have rhythms to them, too, studies have shown, although we usually are not consciously aware of them. A good conversation develops rhythm over time, as long as each participant is given a “turn” with an equal opportunity to contribute.
Board games are instruments of social interaction, and it follows that people will fall into these interpersonal rhythms when playing them. But each game also has a rhythm of its own that is driven by its rules. Typical conventions such as player turns and game phases all mark the “downbeats” of a game, giving the playing experience a rhythmic structure. Repetition, then, is not only a good thing, it is absolutely necessary to give a game its rhythm.
Repetition by itself, however, is not enough. After all, LCR and Candyland have plenty of repetition, yet the rhythms those “activities” might create is only due to the fact that no time is required for player decisions—because there aren’t any. Other games are not as extreme, but in an attempt at creating rhythm, player options are sometimes too constraining. Players feel that they are taking the same actions over and over, “wash, rinse, repeat.” The beat is there, but there isn’t enough variation. Like Jazz musicians, players need room for creative fills, the “mini solos” that keep one’s interest in between the game’s musical phrases.
Furthermore, as fellow OG writer Patrick Brennan observes, it is important for the rules to allow each participant to meet the “social contract expectations” of every other player, which includes time to take a turn and the appropriate amount of player interaction. “If the game encourages someone to take too long, or to play randomly, if the risk/reward payoffs are off, the luck-to-length ratio is off, or encourages co-operation and nastiness in the same breath, for instance, then I can see how it can be said the game lacks rhythm,” Brennen says.
Games lacking rhythm are often described as “clunky” or “inelegant.” They can be made up of too many subsystems that offer an uneven number of options every round, prone to “analysis paralysis” on some turns while others’ turns are easier to evaluate and quicker to complete. Rather than settling into a comfortable rhythm, then, the jerky stops and starts in gameplay instead resemble the practice sessions I used to have back in high school with my garage band.
And player interaction—a key ingredient in a game with rhythm—is often sparse or non-existent. Can a multi-player solitaire “sandbox” game have rhythm? I suppose it can, although it is probably more akin to a group of foodies snatching dishes in turn order from a “Sushi train” conveyor belt.
Fast-playing card games, on the other hand, are the clearest examples of “rhythmic games,” as their brisk pace makes them easy to observe, and their social contract expectations are universal. Before I was old enough to learn them, I used to watch in amazement the trick-taking games played at family reunions. I marvelled at the rhythm they were creating as each player, in turn, drew one card from her hand and tossed it into the center of the table. Then the winner wiped them all to the side and, with a fluid continuation of motion, pulled another card from her hand and began the next “measure of music” by leading a new trick. I believe that it is this repetition—this rhythm of card play—together with room for creative play, that makes trick-takers some of the most popular games in the world.
And just as we like the rhythm of music to build in complexity during the duration of the piece, we want our games to have a “story arc” in which the rhythms are allowed to change for all players, eventually building to a climactic finish. We want the stadium drum-solo ending rather than the lip-synced fade-out.
Can a successful game have a lack of rhythm? Probably. There are always exceptions to the rule. Chess and Go can have a sluggish rhythm, unless one uses a timer, a kind of “metronome” for boardgaming that establishes an artificial cadence. And for awhile, the action point allowance system was all the rage despite it’s knack for bogging down a game, and Tikal and Torres even won the Spiel des Jahres award. But I don’t think that it’s pure coincidence that the SdJ jury, in the years since, have turned back to games with snappier player turns—games that encourage a more distinct rhythm. After all, the award was designed to highlight designer games that are accessible to most people, and the best way to make that happen is to pick games with a more distinct rhythm.
I’ve even received feedback from publishers for my own designs that confirmed this suspicion. One of my latest releases, Artifact, co-designed with Bernd Eisenstein, originally had players taking up to 6 actions each turn. A publisher who was interested in the game, however, told us, “It reminds me of the action point games of a few years back.” The turns were too long and the game had no pacing—no rhythm. That critique pushed us to find a different solution, and limiting players to 1-2 actions each turn gave the game a better sense of rhythm, eventually leading to a final round finish in a game design competition and a contract with another publisher.
Just as a song with a good beat moves us to dance, it seems that the rhythm designed into games can move us to play and publish them. We all may not move to the beat of the same drummer, but whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us do enjoy getting in sync when we interact with each other, whether it’s over a conversation…
…or around a boardgame.