Raiders of the North Sea: A Visual Narrative Feast
Often game mechanics and the strategies employed by players, make up the bulk of the game’s story. It is here, in the throws of tension and excitement where most of the emotions are felt and remembered long after the box is returned to the shelf. However, there is an increasing number of games that are employing a far more subtle and elegant element to enhance the game’s story. This is something we call visual narrative and, for the most part, it is largely overlooked when designing board games. However, one of the best examples of how visual narrative is vital to the storytelling of a game is Shem Phillips’ Raiders of the North Sea (2015). Let us take a look.
As Viking Raiders you compete with your fellow clan mates to build the biggest Raiding Party and pull off the most successful raids. Each raid provides plunder and the more plunder the more you can grow your crew; the bigger the crew the more rewarding the raid you can embark on; and the harder the raid the higher the victory points. After all, there is glory to be had on the battlefield. Yet, beneath all this is a more subtle and complex story being told; one that considers the price of pillaging the land.
Stretched out in the middle of the table sits a board, laden with wooden pieces; a suggestion that there is lots of plunder and glory to be had. Before we begin we immediately know that this board is also a frame within which the sage of our play is acted out. This frame is also a map, with each area a metaphorical X marking out treasure and glory. Yet, what we might not immediately recognise is that this map is a stage too. A stage upon which the game’s visual narrative will play out. Let us commence. We begin at the bottom of the board, in our village on the other side of the sea.
Raiders of the North Sea is a worker placement game. Each player begins by putting a worker on a vacant space, actioning that space’s ability, and then doing the same when they pick up a worker. The spaces will allow players to play cards, hire crew members, get silver, receive food etc. eventually building up enough resources to embark on their first raid. When players complete a raid they collect the plunder in that raid space, add it to their supplies, and then take the villager assigned to that space. The game continues like this until the end game conditions are met—usually when most of the board has been ransacked.
As players complete more raids, play progresses and the board begins to empty. At the end of the game, we are left with a play space that has no more opportunity for plunder, a land that has had its resources removed by someone. This is crucial to the narrative. You see, Raiders of the North Sea uses everything it is made up of to tell the story. Thus, when the game ends we are left with a largely barren board. Our frame of play has been exhausted by the increasingly challenging raids.
By physically clearing the board the game narrates the story of the player’s plundering and raiding. This may sound like an obvious outcome, however, there are many other worker placement games that rely on the end result of the game to tell the story. During these games, resources rarely dwindle and the supply is something like the infamous bank from Monopoly, part of the game but outside the frame of play (and seemingly infinite). Simply put, the visual narrative is usually absent and not engaged with.
If we were to play Lords of the Waterdeep for example, we would see here that the story is told not through visual means but through secrecy and deception. As Lords of the fictitious Dungeons and Dragons city Waterdeep, we must employ our agents to carry out our bidding and gain victory through completing quests. Secrecy is key as we try to mask which type of quests we favour to ensure bonus points at the end of the game depending on the lord we are playing as.
Lords of the Waterdeep is a superb game and argued to be one of the better gateway games into the hobby. It is a staple worker placement game and a seminal example of how worker placement games are usually played out. The choices are rarely ever diminished throughout the game and the resources are seemingly infinite as you race to get the most points. Knowing this, we can see that it is in the game’s complicated considered design—namely our relationship to the board, how it is used, and how every component is part of the story—that allows Raiders to really depart from the norm and excel. The visual narrative we play out on the board is something that enriches the whole experience.
To help us understand this concept in greater depth we must turn to the form of graphic novels. The term visual narrative is largely engaged with and observed within this discipline and can help us better understand why it is important to observe in board games.
Writing about the visual narrative of comic books, Neil Cohn observes a “navigational component” designed in graphic structures to tell “us where to start the sequence and how to progress through it.” (Cohn, 2012) One of the unique elements of playing Raider’s is the physical movement of the story up the board. This navigational component not only allows the players to read the game but documents the history of play. Like the black lines that separate a panel from its neighbour in a comic strip, the edges of the board become a graphic frame within which the content of the story is captured and we, as players, navigate through it. Where some popular games frame play within a track (think Monopoly), the play of Raiders pushes up the board in a linear direction, complimenting the story as the players push deeper towards tougher challenges, taking greater and greater bounties with each victory.
A player’s inherent agency over the game narrative sets games apart from other storytelling mediums. Interacting with the world and making choices with consequences invites the readers into the text to act and have influence over the narrative. In the case of Raiders, the visual narrative that accompanies the overall story of play showcases a sense of legacy of the player’s agency. At the end of play, when you reflect on an empty board, we see a history of the game just experienced. The design here uses mechanics and aesthetics in close collaboration to tell a visual narrative where the board is used simultaneously as a vehicle for play, a stage for the story, and a history book capturing the narrative of the player’s decisions as Viking raiders.
Board games use their physicality to enrich the narrative. With moving parts, wooden blocks, modular boards, and plastic figurines, analog games utilise feel and touch for interactivity in a way other entertainment mediums cannot. This brings the players agency closer to reality as it is embodied in physicality. Finally, it is when games can begin to use these components to better tell the story being told that we can see the true value in tabletop gaming as a vehicle for storytelling.
Some Design tips:
The board can help tell the history of play and the story of your game
The mechanics are a start to something far more engaging: Story!
Don't be afraid to use everything to tell the narrative of your game
Components can be the characters in your tale!
As always, we're here to start a debate and expand on the conversations around video and tabletop gaming, past the review and into a critique. If you have any questions or thoughts on this, or any other articles we have posted, then please do let us know! Only with more voices can we have a better conversation.