My very good friend Kit hooked me up with a copy of Fog of Love, a two-player board game about romance. It’s not a game for romance! It’s not for couples looking to spice up their relationship. It’s way more interesting than that. And it’s gotten me thinking about how narrow gaming often is.
First, about the premise. I confess, as a lifelong gamer, my tastes were trained toward either conflict (wars, battles, head-to-head competition of any kind) or commerce (area control, engine building, wood for sheep) or colonialism (4x, exploration, conquering). Add to that a good dose of toxic masculinity training and a steady diet of shitty romcoms through the ’80s and ’90s, and you can imagine how weird and uncomfortable it may be for, shall we say, my demographic to think about romance as a gameable topic.
My first exposure to the idea of romance as anything other than an electrified third rail came to me through small-press storygame-style RPGs. Prior to biting the bullet the first time I ran Burning Empires and creating an NPC who was the devoted love interest of one of the player characters, the subject had never come up in a healthy way. My games up to that point were filled with dudes doing jobs, not human beings together. I know my fellow dude players have worked to get over that hump as well, granting me credibility as a totally well-intentioned romantic counterpart or mother or daughter or, you know, a competent and rational actor and not some scheming bitch who ends up backstabbing them after all. Or fridging a faceless NPC to give them the shallowest of motivations to start killing bad guys.
Going to conventions was a huge help in getting my head in the right place to treat any and all roles as valuable and worthy. Modeling my play after other (younger) male players diving into gender and sexuality and romance head-first started me on that path. Playing a version of Rory Gilmore in a Gilmore Girls-themed fantasy game and feeling tremendous authorial and immersive satisfaction from that really cemented the subject for me.
Since then, it’s been more than a decade of bringing a more full-spectrum version of humanity to our roleplaying. When I attend conventions, I’m so bored with falling back on straight heroic dude roles that I’ll seek out literally any other option. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I have to fight for credibility with the other players, and I still check myself for old habits. It’s a work in process and none of us get it right every time.
My first exposure to romance as a specifically gameable topic was via Alex Roberts’ Star Crossed. I met Alex at a small house con in Colorado last year, where she was demo’ing a final draft of her game. It’s a hybrid RPG-tabletop board game thing (as is Fog of Love) where two players create roles of people who, for whatever reason, are forbidden to be together. We came up with a scenario where two astronauts are working together at an isolated science base and fraternization rules prohibit a romantic relationship. The game uses a mix of Jenga and PbtA style moves, and the players invent scenes across a series of acts. The game is designed to build physical and emotional tension (via the Jenga tower, which gets more precarious as moves get played out) and eventually we find out what becomes of the characters. It’s terrific, highly recommended. Play this game whether you’re a roleplayer or a board game nerd.
Fog of Love is in the same zip code as Star Crossed but is more on the board game end of the spectrum. The players start out as a couple in the first moments of their relationship. You create characters out of occupation and trait cards. Your counterpart gives you your traits and explains what about that trait they found attractive. The game is full of little gestures like this, and they get into your head. In our tutorial game, I played a woman who was a professional con artist, and my counterpart found my scent, old-fashioned clothes and muscular body attractive (out of a set of five choices). My counterpart played an ad executive dude, and my character found his booming voice, nerdy glasses and slow speech attractive. Those traits, plus your occupation, start nudging you toward some long-term strategies.
Fog of Love is … hm. Semi-cooperative? Each of you can win, but sometimes you need to help the other side do well so you can do well. But not all the time! You’re playing toward an endgame condition you choose called your Destiny. Initially you start with a hand of four Destinies, but as the game proceeds you’re instructed to discard, swap, and otherwise manipulate your Destiny choices until, in the finale, you must choose one you think you can win with. There are some nice Destinies in the tutorial (love partners, our satisfaction is high and neither of us is too far from the other) and some not so nice (domination, where we didn’t break up but my satisfaction is much higher than yours).
The game plays out in a series of Scenes across several Chapters. Each Chapter gives you special rules as to what Scenes you can draw from and how many cards will get played. There are Sweet, Serious, and Dramatic Scene decks. The tutorial starts you out drawing only from the Sweet Scene deck, then only the Serious Scene deck, and finally only the Dramatic Scene deck. Our game ended up a melodramatic mess.
The Scenes are short and compelling. In most cases, it’s a scenario followed by several choices. Sometimes you ask your partner to make a choice, and sometimes you both choose in parallel and compare your choices to see how in-sync you are. This all sounds very mechanical but, honestly, it’s a lightweight game as far as formal procedures go. There are also special kinds of scene cards that break the rules in other ways: minor scenes that interrupt or change what just got played or choices made, secrets you slip under your tableau, and so on.
As you play through your scenes, the point of all this is to build your character’s Satisfaction, which is your end of game score. Most of your Satisfaction is on display right on the character card. But you also have three secret goal cards, all of which involve either achieving a certain delta of one of the six personality factors on your own, or in combination with your counterpart’s score. More often than not, the characters will end up in opposition with their goals. In our game, my con artist was driving hard toward manipulative while her boyfriend was driving hard toward innocent, which is directly opposed. Through clever but inevitable card play, he was able to correctly guess my goal, call me on my bullshit, and make me discard manipulative.
Our tutorial game’s relationship ended with neither of us winning. Once my lady was called out, I barely had enough time to shift strategies and drive hard toward kindness. But my endgame Destiny card required my counterpart’s Satisfaction be higher, and we just hadn’t made the right choices to make that happen.
The game I was most reminded of as we played is Mysterium. In Mysterium, everyone plays a psychic trying to communicate with the ghost of a murder victim, played by one of the players. The entire game is about guessing what the ghost is trying to communicate to you via image cards. In Fog of Love, I found myself spending a lot of energy both trying to communicate my needs (many Scene cards ask the player to “tell” the other a little fictional account, ie “tell me about a good memory you had with your friends”), as well as trying to suss out why my counterpart was going for. Everything about the game is about trying to build empathy while also pursuing your own needs. And if that isn’t what relationships are all about, I don’t know what is.
There is a bit of a selfish message built into Fog of Love but it happens to be a message I find compatible with my own worldview. That is, we need to pursue our own happiness in the context of others pursuing their own happiness — and those pursuits may change us over time. In the tutorial, the four set Destinies end with the couple staying together and other goals that might either bring them together or drive them apart. In our own game, there was a certain bit of sadness that we ended up together but we both knew it wasn’t satisfying.
I feel like a well-rounded approach to human relationships has got to be a cornerstone of any game where I identify with my position in the game. The vast majority of board games don’t offer a personal identity: you play a faction or an empire or a civilization or a family, not an individual. RPGs, of course, are traditionally about identity. Some are more personal than others — I’m writing a thing about a little dungeon-delving romp called Goblinville next, and it’s totally not about personal stories — but my own satisfaction just continues to grow as I find and play more games about being human.
Does your personality-centered gaming include a spectrum of the human experience? Or do you prefer to stay focused on the application of violence to achieve your goals? I have to say, gaming’s fixation on violence has worn me out. After decades of make-believe violence, I’m looking hard at everything else games now offer.