The Bard in Board Games: A Taste of Managing Elizabethan Theatre in Theatre-Making Games
By: Anatoly Joachim M. Limos, BA English Studies: Literature
University of the Philippines – Diliman
Disclaimer – The images, videos, and links provided are intended for academic purposes only. I do not claim ownership over these items.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to manage your own theater troupe in Elizabethan England? The act of borrowing Shakespearean plays and characters is a notable occurrence in video and board games, for example, popular videogames like The Sims 2 and Mabinogi relive and explore the stories of Shakespeare’s characters through gameplay. However, this act of borrowing is not limited to narrative or characters alone, other games highlight the act of creating theater – an act intimately tied to Shakespeare. Surprisingly, a couple of board games, namely Shakespeare and Shakespeare: The Bard Game, not only offer this experience to its players, but also introduces them to the world of Elizabethan theater. Finding a game that focuses on the experience of theater management rather than a Shakespearean narrative or character is interesting because this kind of game, in my experience, is not usually found in the mainstream.
The two board games mentioned above are defined by Gina Bloom as “theater-making games”. These type of games “invite players to feel for themselves what it is like to put on a play, in all its diverse facets.” She also describes these games to be “well poised to stimulate and express the interactivity of theatrical performance as players are turned into creators of theater (actors, dramatists, theater managers, or designers).” This type of game can be distinguished from other types of Shakespeare games such as the drama-making game in which the player “essentially inhabits or controls a Shakespearean character”, and the scholar-making game which “centers on trivia and turns the player into a student of Shakespeare and his theater” (115). I agree with Bloom’s statement which claims that Shakespeare-themed games aspire to create some sort of cultural impact. By exposing the public to Shakespeare through a board game, there is this hope of luring a younger and hipper audience into patronizing theatre arts by making them “more comfortable with Shakespeare’s plays and theatrical performance in general” (114). From here, let us investigate how these two board games attempt to provide this theater-making experience.
Shakespeare: The Bard Game
Shakespeare: The Bard Game, published by Überplay in 2004, was designed by Richard Heffer and Mike Siggins. The game was consulted for accuracy by Professor Peter Holland, ex-head of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford – the leading center in the world for Shakespearean Studies. The board game puts you in the role of an Elizabethan theater entrepreneur trying to put on plays. The objective is to acquire Shakespeare’s scripts, form companies, acquire props, and accumulate large sums of money to enable these productions. Throughout the game, there are opportunities to earn money by answering questions on Shakespeare’s plays (trivia) as well as reading short extracts of his plays (performance). There are also Fate cards which are drawn to either help or hinder play, adding an interesting twist. The goal is to earn the most Acclaim Points by the end of the game which is based on plays and assets owned (“Shakespeare”). There are two noteworthy elements of this board game: the locations and the Fate cards.
There are important locations scattered on the map (or board) which the player is encouraged to visit. For example, a player may visit the Bard himself in his chambers and gain access to his scripts in exchange for money. Once a script is acquired, the player will most likely want to play it for an audience, but some preparation is needed. Actors are used in staging a play and can be hired at an Inn. Props and costumes are needed as well and can be bought at Leadenhall Market. Finally, some plays require the player to have the support of patrons which can be acquired at the Great Houses – the player always gain one patron there, but when impressed with knowledge on Shakespeare by answering trivia questions, he or she can gain more patrons (Günster). Fate cards have various effects that affect the game. For example, one card says you spy on a rival’s rehearsal in disguise and gain a turn, while another says that Marlowe disputes the authorship of one of your plays, and you must lose your most valuable script tile. Although random, these events are thematic and aim to add color to the game (Appelcline). Despite having trivia and performance elements, the gameplay is heavy on resource management as the player needs to balance his money in order to hire actors, purchase props, and deal with the random effects of Fate cards. Overall, the board game’s map reveal the important historical locations involved with the rise of Elizabethan theater, and Fate cards, along with the act of managing in-game “resources” such as props or actors, provide the events, elements, and factors that could have shaped or altered the quality of Shakespeare’s plays.
*For a more detailed explanation/review on this board game, please visit the following link: http://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/10/10676.phtml
Shakespeare is a recently published board game by Ystari Games and was designed by Hervé Rigal. Much like Shakespeare: The Bard Game, players are put in the role of theater managers who must recruit actors, craftsmen, jewelers, and others in order to assemble everything needed for the play’s performance at week’s end. The game lasts six days (or rounds) and on each day, players may use up to five action points to activate certain characters that affect the overall quality of the play and theater ambiance. Below is a list of some important characters found in the game:
- Actors: Are able to rehearse one or more acts in the three-act play; the more they rehearse, the more benefits a player receives during dress rehearsals on days four and six.
- Costume Mistress: Creates costume elements that enhance Actors; if Actors lack a complete costume, they cannot participate in dress rehearsals.
- Set Dresser: Build the set. An elaborate sets offers more rewards for the player.
- Queen: A player can earn money by giving the Queen an early peek. She also provides objectives for a player, and when fulfilled, a player gains her favor (rewards) on the final day.
After players take actions, they check the individual ambience level in their theater, gaining or losing points or rehearsal time depending on the atmosphere. Dress rehearsal on the fourth and sixth days provide another chance for fully-dressed actors to perform, and those who are well-rehearsed earn points or money. Players must allow characters who performed to rest, with only one of those characters being able to work the next day. The more action points exhausted, less work will be done the next day. In the end, players must pay their characters, with each unpaid character blemishing reputation, reducing accumulated Prestige points. Whoever finishes with the most Prestige points wins (“Shakespeare 2015”).
*The board game has a lot more rules and components. For a better understanding of how the game works, I highly recommend watching this video:
Although both board games have a different approach to the concept of theater-making, I would like to propose that Shakespeare adds a little more nuance to the experience of theater management. The mechanic of map movement and locations in Shakespeare: The Bard Game is interesting, however, Shakespeare’s huge emphasis on maximizing characters actions and resources, with the addition of making these factors affect or interact with each other, better captures the intricacies of the theater-making process, providing a better immersive experience. For example, investing in Actors and Costume Mistresses is a good strategy as costumes not only enhance the value of Actors, they also enable characters to participate in dress rehearsals. Another notable aspect of the game is the inclusion of Queen Elizabeth as one of the characters. This mechanic reflects the Queen’s involvement and influence on Shakespeare’s play, and in general, the world of Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare was greatly indebted to the patronage and support of royal and noble personages, one of which was the Queen of England herself. The virgin queen delighted in theatrical entertainments and used her influence in the progress of the English drama. Shakespeare was ardently attracted to Elizabeth and her Court, and proved a faithful servant to his royal mistress. The first evidence of this is his tribute to the queen is in A Midsummer-Night’s Dream where she is described as “a fair vestal throned by the west”; the play was probably produced for a special Court performance (Brown). Like Shakespeare: The Bard Game, this game also adheres to the Shakespeare theme by adding a certain historical flavor.
Both of these board games do not clearly represent how the experience of theater-making actually works, however, they are good gateway media for those uninitiated to world of Shakespeare and theater. Bloom acknowledges that the act of resource management in these games, such weighing the benefits of investing in actors or props, makes players experience the trials and tribulations of running a theater company and staging an Elizabethan play. I also agree with her statement which claims that these theater-making games have value because they familiarize an audience with the various aspects involved in the process of making theater, such that when game players attend an actual Shakespeare performance, they would arguably be more critically and emotionally engaged in what they see (116). In addition, both these games educate the player as their adherence to a Shakespeare theme entails an adherence to historical records on Elizabethan theater.
Appelcline, Shannon. “Review of Shakespeare: The Bard Game”. RPG.Net. Skotos Tech, Inc., 15 September 2004. Web. 30 Nov 2015.
Bloom, Gina. “Videogame Shakespeare: Enskilling Audiences Through Theatre-Making Games”. Shakespeare Studies. Rosemont Publishing & Printing Corporation, n.d. Web. 30 Nov 2015. PDF.
Brown, Henry. “Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare’s Patron”. Shakespeare’s Patrons & Other Essays. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 20 Aug 2009. Web. 30 Nov 2015.
Günster, Kai. “Shakespeare: The Bard Game”. meoplesmagazine.com. Meople’s Magazine, 14 Aug 2011. Web. 30 Nov 2015.
“Shakespeare: The Bard Game”. Funagain Games. Boardgamer, LLC, n.d. Web. 29 Nov 2015.
“Shakespeare (2015)”. boardgamegeek.com. BoardGameGeek, LLC, n.d. Web. 29 Nov 2015