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A Game of Chess is
Like a Swordfight
Melee Combat and the Dramatic Ideal in Contemporary Tabletop Gaming
I. On Tabletop Strategy Gaming
II. On the Dramatic Ideal
III. On the Case Studies: Samurai-Themed Skirmishers
IV. On Design and Research Purpose
Excerpt from Sword of Desperation (2010)
From Simulation to Simulacrum Following Barthes 1964
(Left: Prussian Kriegsspiel, photo by Matthew Kirschenbaum. Right: Warmaster Revolution, photo by Helmut Kovac)
Melee Combat in Tabletop Gaming
• Combat a central component of direct, strategic player engagement
• Usually elementary, even if win conditions are not combat related
• Dice-based, i.e. rooted in the physical “ability of the player to directly
manipulate, understand and experience game systems themselves”
(Klug 2011, 41)
• Rolling dice an act of imaginative, situational, and audible representation
(Carter, Harrop, and Gibbs 2014, 14-19)
• May employ additional tools (e.g. cards)
• Intended to convey the essence of confrontation via gameplay
• Challenging designers to combine transparency, uncertainty, replication…
The Dramatic Ideal
Every step of a tabletop game’s turn sequence is the
mechanic abstraction (the ideal) of a meaningful,
symbolic reenactment (the drama).
The dramatic ideal is the ludo-narrative concordance of
these layers that are intended to provide an experience
representing the events happening in the game.
The Dramatic Ideal on the Example of
Melee in Samurai-Themed Skirmishers
From Japanese restaurations
• History, tradition, and lore
• E.g. the ‘one-cut’ dogma of Iaido (Suino 1994, 3)
• The aesthetic and narrative repertoire of Chanbara films
• Small-scale battles, archetypical characters, key scenes in fights…
From Western revisionisms
• The post-war glorification of Bushido ethics (cf. Hurst 1990)
• Pop-cultural hijacking of Afro-orientalism (cf. McLeod 2013)
• “Martial arts in its ideal form is nothing if not cool” (Hewitt 2008, 273)
A Comparison of Samurai-Themed
Skirmishers and their Melee Combat
Dice used D6 Six-sided special dice D6 D6
Movement Charge into melee
(high risk, high reward)
Move into melee
(low risk, low reward)
Must charge to attack
(not move)
Charge into melee
Move into melee
Opportunity charges
Challenge enemies
Must move to attack
(not run)
Action Steps
Simultaneous
Determine dice pool, boost
Choose weapon and attack
Opposing roll
(player vs. player)
Compare attack/defence successes
(Base die, + support, - ones)
Fixed order
Attacker determines dice pool
Attacker rolls test
(Three of a kind to strike)
Defender determines dice pool
Defender rolls test
(If activations left)
Simultaneous
Both players determine attack pool
Both players roll test
(+4 to succeed)
Compare successes
Mixed
Allocate combat counter pool
(Attack and defence)
Determine initiative
Attacker removes counter, rolls die
Defender may boost
Attacker may boost
Subtract defence from attack for result
Uncertainty
Bluffing
(Dice Allocation, attack choice)
Bluffing
(Pool allocation, boosting, passing)
(Terminology following
Engelstein and Shalev 2020)
I Wrestled a Bear Once…
Thinking of turn sequence steps in terms
of dramatic ideals allows…
… to brainstorm on representation
… to dissect the purpose of mechanics
… to evaluate their contribution to a
game’s experience
(… to reflect what experience you want to create)
Sources Cited
• Barthes, Roland. 1966. “Die strukturalistische Tätigkeit.” In Kursbuch 5. http://nina.ort.userweb.mwn.de/barthes.html.
• Carter, Marcus, Harrop, Mitchell, and Martin Gibbs. 2014. “The Roll of the Dice in Warhammer 40,000.” In: ToDigra.
Physical and Digital in Games and Play, edited by Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka & Anu Seisto, 1-28. Pittsburgh: ETC Press.
• Engelstein, Geoffrey and Isaac Shalev. 2020. Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms.
London: CRC Press.
• Hewitt, Kim. 2008. “Martial Arts Is Nothing if Not Cool: Speculations on the Intersections between Martial Arts and African
American Expressive Culture.” In Afro Asia. Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans
and Asian Americans, edited by Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen, 265-284. Durham: Duke University Press.
• Hurst III, G. Cameron. 1990. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushidō Ideal.” Philosophy East and West 40, no. 4: 511-527.
• Klug, Chris. “Dice as Dramaturge.” In: Tabletop. Analogue Game Design, edited by Greg Costikyan and Drew Davidson, 39-
48. Pittsburgh: ETC Press.
• McLeod, Ken. 2013. “Afro-Samurai: techno-Orientalism and contemporary hip hop” Popular Music 32: 2, 259-275.
• Suino, Nicklaus. 1994. The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Eishin-Ryu Iaido. Boston: Weatherhill.

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A Game of Chess is Like a Swordfight.pdf

  • 1. A Game of Chess is Like a Swordfight Melee Combat and the Dramatic Ideal in Contemporary Tabletop Gaming I. On Tabletop Strategy Gaming II. On the Dramatic Ideal III. On the Case Studies: Samurai-Themed Skirmishers IV. On Design and Research Purpose
  • 2. Excerpt from Sword of Desperation (2010)
  • 3. From Simulation to Simulacrum Following Barthes 1964 (Left: Prussian Kriegsspiel, photo by Matthew Kirschenbaum. Right: Warmaster Revolution, photo by Helmut Kovac)
  • 4. Melee Combat in Tabletop Gaming • Combat a central component of direct, strategic player engagement • Usually elementary, even if win conditions are not combat related • Dice-based, i.e. rooted in the physical “ability of the player to directly manipulate, understand and experience game systems themselves” (Klug 2011, 41) • Rolling dice an act of imaginative, situational, and audible representation (Carter, Harrop, and Gibbs 2014, 14-19) • May employ additional tools (e.g. cards) • Intended to convey the essence of confrontation via gameplay • Challenging designers to combine transparency, uncertainty, replication…
  • 5. The Dramatic Ideal Every step of a tabletop game’s turn sequence is the mechanic abstraction (the ideal) of a meaningful, symbolic reenactment (the drama). The dramatic ideal is the ludo-narrative concordance of these layers that are intended to provide an experience representing the events happening in the game.
  • 6. The Dramatic Ideal on the Example of Melee in Samurai-Themed Skirmishers From Japanese restaurations • History, tradition, and lore • E.g. the ‘one-cut’ dogma of Iaido (Suino 1994, 3) • The aesthetic and narrative repertoire of Chanbara films • Small-scale battles, archetypical characters, key scenes in fights… From Western revisionisms • The post-war glorification of Bushido ethics (cf. Hurst 1990) • Pop-cultural hijacking of Afro-orientalism (cf. McLeod 2013) • “Martial arts in its ideal form is nothing if not cool” (Hewitt 2008, 273)
  • 7. A Comparison of Samurai-Themed Skirmishers and their Melee Combat Dice used D6 Six-sided special dice D6 D6 Movement Charge into melee (high risk, high reward) Move into melee (low risk, low reward) Must charge to attack (not move) Charge into melee Move into melee Opportunity charges Challenge enemies Must move to attack (not run) Action Steps Simultaneous Determine dice pool, boost Choose weapon and attack Opposing roll (player vs. player) Compare attack/defence successes (Base die, + support, - ones) Fixed order Attacker determines dice pool Attacker rolls test (Three of a kind to strike) Defender determines dice pool Defender rolls test (If activations left) Simultaneous Both players determine attack pool Both players roll test (+4 to succeed) Compare successes Mixed Allocate combat counter pool (Attack and defence) Determine initiative Attacker removes counter, rolls die Defender may boost Attacker may boost Subtract defence from attack for result Uncertainty Bluffing (Dice Allocation, attack choice) Bluffing (Pool allocation, boosting, passing) (Terminology following Engelstein and Shalev 2020)
  • 8. I Wrestled a Bear Once… Thinking of turn sequence steps in terms of dramatic ideals allows… … to brainstorm on representation … to dissect the purpose of mechanics … to evaluate their contribution to a game’s experience (… to reflect what experience you want to create)
  • 9. Sources Cited • Barthes, Roland. 1966. “Die strukturalistische Tätigkeit.” In Kursbuch 5. http://nina.ort.userweb.mwn.de/barthes.html. • Carter, Marcus, Harrop, Mitchell, and Martin Gibbs. 2014. “The Roll of the Dice in Warhammer 40,000.” In: ToDigra. Physical and Digital in Games and Play, edited by Frans Mäyrä, Katriina Heljakka & Anu Seisto, 1-28. Pittsburgh: ETC Press. • Engelstein, Geoffrey and Isaac Shalev. 2020. Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design: An Encyclopedia of Mechanisms. London: CRC Press. • Hewitt, Kim. 2008. “Martial Arts Is Nothing if Not Cool: Speculations on the Intersections between Martial Arts and African American Expressive Culture.” In Afro Asia. Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans, edited by Fred Ho and Bill V. Mullen, 265-284. Durham: Duke University Press. • Hurst III, G. Cameron. 1990. “Death, Honor, and Loyality: The Bushidō Ideal.” Philosophy East and West 40, no. 4: 511-527. • Klug, Chris. “Dice as Dramaturge.” In: Tabletop. Analogue Game Design, edited by Greg Costikyan and Drew Davidson, 39- 48. Pittsburgh: ETC Press. • McLeod, Ken. 2013. “Afro-Samurai: techno-Orientalism and contemporary hip hop” Popular Music 32: 2, 259-275. • Suino, Nicklaus. 1994. The Art of Japanese Swordsmanship: A Manual of Eishin-Ryu Iaido. Boston: Weatherhill.