The Functions of Myth in Game Design – Written Article

Dream time stories, fables, legends, folklore, sagas, creation stories, and parables are some of the ways that mythology has been formed and transmitted down generations since we first could tell stories. In a modern context myth is transmitted through novels, comics, movies, and internet memes. I think one place worth considering is the role of board games in engaging us with myth.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design

The Functions of Myth in Game Design – How many mythological games have you got?

Last week I dropped some heavy words on you in how myth functions. The metaphysical, cosmological, psychological, and sociological functions of myth play a role in helping stories move from mere entertainment into stories that communicate a truth about the human condition at a deeper level. This is not the same as saying that myth is factual. While I would not say that Aesop’s fable of the Tortoise and the Hare is factual, I would say it communicates a truth about being human. In the same way, I think board games can work as myth-making in our society and perhaps suggest why we find ourselves so encapsulated in the stories they tell.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design - The Hare and the Tortoise

The Hare and the Tortoise…

The metaphysical work of myth is found in stories that talk about the forming of existence. Such stories include the beginning of a person, a society, a tribe, or a city. Romulus and Remus, Cain and Able, Abraham, the Rainbow Serpent all have stories associated with the formation of early societies. These stories might be filled with gods, mythical beings, and include magic in many forms. There are plenty of board games that tell these stories and build on these themes. Cyclades fits this perfectly as you pay homage to the gods to build your ancient Greek city. The origin of a tribe in Agricola illustrates the human struggle to survive the harsh realities of early society, a theme replicated in games like Helios, Tzolk’in and many others. It is not that these games are trying to directly tell the facts and realities of how early societies formed, but they do try to engage you in a story for the duration of the game on an experiential level. In each, you seek harmony with the environment and manage the resources that you are often dependent on the gods to supply.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design

So many board games use mythological themes / stories

A cosmological function of myth views all the parts of the universe as contained within a whole. The early biblical creation story sees all the parts of the universe as formed through the word of a supreme being whereas the Greeks had Chaos and Gaia and the Babylonians had An and Ninhursag. In board games, this may not be the easiest concept to see examples of thematically, but functionally most games actually work this way. Every game is a system of processes that forces you to consider the whole game even when working on your individual strategy. When I use a resource, it is not there for another player, when someone takes up territory on the board it impinges on my ability to spread my pieces out. Elysium brings this together both mechanically and thematically. Each element of a game forces me to either consider other players or has an impact on other players.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design Elysium board game

Elysium, yet another favorite utilizing mythological themes

Mythology has a sociological function by seeking to maintain a certain social order or by authoring a code by which to live. The above-mentioned Aesop’s fables do this, as do the parables of Jesus, and even the great legends of the ancient world. They establish why we behave and how we should behave in our social groups. Games do this by establishing at the start the social environment within the game context through the rules. Just as myths warn us of the consequences of going against the social order games provide consequences for not playing a certain way. This can be directly with following actions or states of play. In Broom Service, if the start player opens with the Mountain Witch each player that has the Mountain Witch in hand must also play that card. If they fail to play their card at the correct time they lose that action for the turn. Alternatively, in Escape: Curse of the Temple you must roll dice and match symbols to do actions or move through doors.

There is a set way to use the dice and explore the temple, but you have a time limit to complete the game successfully. In addition, you have several moments when you need to run back to the main tomb to be safe before the doors close. This is directing your work within the social order in two ways. Let’s say you want to go off alone you may but should you roll a mask face you cannot reroll that die. Should you roll enough masks and lock all your dice you will need others to come and help you. This creates an imposed social condition for helping people and hopefully for reciprocity. You could break that social norm and not help people, but expect to get left on your own. These mechanics also drive players to avoid making long hallways and instead circle rooms around to ensure multiple doorway access points. Should the gong get hit and everyone has to rush back to the safe area, you do not want to have a significant number of doors to open. Better that you cut through fewer rooms and open fewer doors to be safe, or risk losing a die, your most precious resource in the game. In Catan, there is a robber that takes half your hand once a 7 comes up which punishes people for hoarding resources. In Uno, if you have only one card and fail to declare as soon as someone notices you are forced to draw a new hand. Games impose a social order and provide rewards and punishments depending on how well you adhere it to.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design

Escape The Curse of the Temple.. a great game.

Finally, Myths provide a psychological function. This is very similar to the Sociological function but is more focused on the individual. These myths are often found as cautionary tales that tell of how the hero or heroine embodies social rules and seeking to always do good. When the heroine or hero fails to adhere to the proper code of conduct thy will find themselves facing tragedy. Lancelot and Arthur were the best of friends and the kingdom prospered under their leadership. However, once Lancelot engaged in an affair with Queen Guinevere the chivalric code was broken, which allows Mordred to exploit a civil war and bring about the end to King Arthur’s court. Shadows Over Camelot portrays this brilliantly when each turn begins with the player doing something that puts Camelot at risk, then giving you a chance to make amends by doing a heroic action to fight the encroaching evil. Further to this is the traitor mechanic. Because you risk being betrayed you are forced to check that each character is doing their honest and best effort. If they act in a dishonest fashion they may be accused of being a traitor. Accurate accusations force the traitor to take on a new role outside of the kingdom while mistaken accusations result in evil being advanced. Lords of Waterdeep provides extra points at the end of the game for quests you complete that align with your personal Lord’s bonus. In fact, this mechanic appears often enough when your character is specifically provided an in-game bonus for following a certain trajectory. If you are a seafarer, for example, and you do an action on the docks you might get an extra coin. In Elder Sign, each character has a specialisation and when you complete rooms that focus on your specialisation you get a bonus.

The Functions of Myth in Game Design Shadows Over Camelot

Some guy with knights and a round table…. interesting ‘story’

Board games certainly do engage in these functions of myth, just not the same way story do. However, it is clear to me that each element of myth finds representation through elements of theme, mechanics, and systems that generate and engage players in the game. Next week we will look at elements of the story that find representation in board games from a mythological perspective.

Author: Gameapalooza Staffers

One of our awesome staff members wrote this piece for your eyes and mind. We love games and want to bring you the latest in tabletop game news and reviews.

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  1. You do some interesting articles. We seem to go through spates of mythological subject matter within the hobby. Greek was big, then Norse was big (still is) and Egyptian. It is interesting to me (as an atheist) that designers veer away from the mythology of christianity. Though a non believer in the concept of god (born out of the unknown and an archaic need to understand that which in an unscientific world needed meaning), the christian stories and rare historical conceptualisations would make for interesting stories in the same way these other god myths and mythologies do. In another century we will look upon the christian “god” in the same manner we do now toward Ra, or Zeus. A parable of meaning to a less modern society.

    Do board game designers veer away from this mythological basis, due to it being seen by the masses as a “christian” game? I would like to see a follow-up article that delves further into this as a hypothesis. The biblical stories themselves would well serve a thematic gaming experience in the same way these other fantasy worlds (mixed in with history) do.


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    • Wow, thanks, Rose. We have only recently upgraded and I am still finding my way around. I just found the comments and saw yours. Clearly, I am not the tech expert in the group. The Christian myths do carry a stigma, but that could be partly that they are well covered and people have overheard them and think they know them. But You are right in suggesting that there is some strong connection to the myth we have already explored in the hobby. Noah, Abraham, Joseph, even much of Jesus’ own narrative is strongly influenced and constructed around these mythological concepts and warrants exploration. Thanks for your thoughts.

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