The Art of Sacrifice


Choice is an element of game design that often differentiates a good game from a bad game. To truly make that choice meaningful though, there has to be some element of sacrifice involved in that choice—that is, you either must give up something good to get something better, or you must choose one good thing to do instead of another. Sometimes this is simple—trading in resources (a good thing to have) for the new settlement or tech upgrade or whatever else that will produce more useful things in the future (a better thing to have). Sometimes it’s more complex—choosing between three or four options that you desperately need, but can only have one of (I’m looking at you, Agricola).

This element of sacrifice creates a tension that is the driving force in the best of games. Do I trade two resources for one with an opponent to get the one I need? Do I try to cure more infections from the board or reach another player to trade cards? Do I build up my own defenses or reach out to attack and weaken my enemy?

This tension creates a unique challenge that exercises our minds, bringing us into a strategic mindset, forcing us to figure out how to use our resources more efficiently, and generally adds to the excitement of any game.

So here’s a thought:

Board games do not exist within a void; they are part of reality, created by real people, and as a result, carry a reflection of life within them, intentional or not. So that brings us to the key question of this blog post: if the above points are true, can we learn anything about life from the way we play games?

Board games offer a unique perspective on reality in that they are played from an external, almost omniscient perspective. You, the player, can see the layout of the whole board, all the cards that have been played, and where the other players’ pieces are. This is pretty much the opposite of life, in which, like the individual pieces, we can only see from a limited perspective.

Being in that external perspective allows you to make better choices. You can think ahead, you can strategize. You don’t have to judge based on the immediate circumstances of any one piece. You can see the whole board, so it becomes a lot easier to think ahead, to imagine what might happen so you can plan around it. You can make judgements on what to sacrifice because you have the perspective to see that you can get something better in the long run.

Without that perspective, as it is in real life, it can be a lot harder to make those decisions. It can be a lot easier to behave in a way that seems to be the most gratifying right away. And often our choices when we make them in that way do lead to immediately gratifying circumstances. But those circumstances do not necessarily set up life for the best results later on. The pleasure of the moment fades, and we desperately need to seek more.

If board games are any sort of accurate metaphor at all, we can start to see that making certain sacrifices in the now can lead to better things in the future. We have to deal with our limited perspective, and the things we’re dealing with are far more abstract. The kind of sacrifices we need to make generally involve giving up on selfish desires for the benefit of others, rather than trading in resources for better resources that serve ourselves. Other people are not our opponents; they are other pieces on the game board with us.

It’s something worth thinking about.

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

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