There is a class of games that is not “fun” to play in the traditional sense (although I imagine we could argue about what that is), but one still gets something out of playing them. The term may not be precise enough, but I will call those games worthwhile.
These games do not offer the same sense of satisfaction that a game where you play super capable bad-asses would.
The best example I can offer of this type of game is Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog.
A game of colonialism and its consequences. As a group, you work together to describe one of the hundreds of small islands in the Pacific Ocean, defining the customs of the natives and the mores of the outsiders arriving to claim it. One player then assumes the role of the Occupation force, playing their capable military, their quisling government, and whatever jaded tourists and shrewd businessmen are interested in a not quite pacified territory. All the others play individual Natives, each trying in their own ways to come to terms with the new regime. The game begins when the war ends. Through a series of scenes, you play out the inevitably conflicted relationship between the two parties, deciding what the colonizers do to maintain control, which natives assimilate and which run amok, and who ends up owning the island in the end. The game will come in the form of a book, with the full rules, author’s notes that explain the design process, and a brief historical overview of colonization in the Pacific.
This game is perfectly designed to do what it does. Having played both sides of the game I feel I have a greater understanding of how circumstances dictate behavior and cause people to do things that might otherwise not. It’s hokey to say, but I am a better person for having played the game.
But it certainly wasn’t fun. Not in the way that a water slide is fun. Not in the way that sex is fun. And not in the way that Swords Without Master is fun, either.
I find myself wondering if there is room for this sort of experience in the board game realm. I started designing a nano game for Button Shy’s contest and what was intended to be a thinky-fun game of strategy about the futures market kept become a statement on Trumpian capitalism. The player who bought the game starts out with more cards. The player who wins a round gets information not available to the other players. Hey, anyone could win the game. It’s not like it’s statistically impossible. Just really, really unlikely.
These were clever(ish) distillations of political statements into game mechanics, but they certainly aren’t fun. Even for the player who received a small million dollar loan an extra card or win bonus it’s not fun. It’s not even satisfying in the Dog Eat Dog sense of “Oh, that’s how this thing happens,” even though that’s how this thing happens (Trumpian capitalism, that is).
Freedom: The Underground Railroad gives that feeling, and I think the key difference is that it is a cooperative game. Yes, it’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll complete your task, but that’s sort of the point. (Although I don’t know if actual conductors had to sacrifice one group to save another. That was a hard choice when they were meeples; I can’t imagine it with people). Perhaps The Grizzled also hits a similar note in regards to trench warfare. This makes me wonder if cooperation is needed in the board game space in order to have a worthwhile experience in an inherently unfair arena.
Needing that co-op element would explain why it works so well in RPGs. On some level, they are all cooperative (prove me wrong!). Even if we’re all fighting in character, we’re all working together to tell a story. So bleak, brutal games like Witch, Montsegur 1244, and even my own Seco Creek Vigilance Committee are fun for our peculiar definition of fun. Work together to watch it all fall apart.