Many years ago now, a friend of mine showed me one of those online twenty questions things that identifies which fictional character you’re thinking of. I can’t remember what it was called, but I’m sure there’s a million of them these days. At the time, I thought it was kind of mind blowing (in a “when you think about it, this is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect computers to be better at than humans” kind of way). I tested it with some of the most obscure characters I could think of: Fall from Grace from Torment. Syrio Forel from Game of Thrones (back when Game of Thrones was just the title of the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire rather than the name of an entire HBO series). Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It got everything I could throw at it.
Then I tried a couple of characters from Georgette Heyer novels. And it didn’t have a clue.
And I suppose this is partly because overtly non-human characters with massive, obvious identifying features and actual signature weapons are easier to identify than relatively ordinary regency dudes, but I suspect that it also highlights quite a significant bias within the community that designed and—for want of a better term—trained the program. Because the thing is that gaming has certain wells it goes back to again and again, and some that it barely ever touches. The twenty questions machine that I can no longer remember the name of was really well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve a lot of stabbing and shooting, not so well set up for identifying characters from stories that involve kissing or curricles.
It’s almost tediously fashionable these days for people, even people within the board/video/role-playing gaming community to bemoan the way that games lean on fighting, killing, and very occasionally running away or surviving as the core challenges of their interactive experiences. Boardgamegeek lists its board games in eighty-four categories (I suspect that this number is arbitrary, and the categories are probably mostly a matter of convenience and aren’t necessarily all the same size, but bear with me here, I’m making a cheap point). Of those eighty-four categories, ten include the word “war” or a derivation of it (and that excludes categories that are clearly referencing warfare without using the syllable like “Napoleonic”, “Post-napoleonic” and “Pike and Shot”). By contrast there is exactly one category for “Trivia”. And ultimately there’s nothing wrong with that—competitive games naturally involve some kind of conflict, and violent physical conflict is not only a fairly obvious thing to attempt to model, there’s also an extremely venerable history of modelling it. After all, Chess and Go are basically wargames.
And of course this is to some extent an oversimplification and a mischaracterisation. There are actually huge genres of game that don’t involve any kind of fighting or killing at all. Even if we ignore abstract games (which are about nothing, kind of by definition) there are games about racing bicycles, building towns, not-dying-of-thirst-in-deserts, escaping from rooms, and so on. Hell, there’s a whole surprisingly massive subgenre of games all about railroads.
Quite a large number of board games—especially the more modern, more lavish kinds of board game—are attempts to emulate other fictional genres. Fantasy Flight Games’ Arkham Files games are attempts to capture Lovecraftian horror (or at least a pulpy, faintly campy pastiche of it). The ten bajilliion zombie games that you’ll find in any halfway-stocked game store are all about capturing one or other flavour of zombie film. Games like Descent and Gloomhaven and many, many others try to capture the essence of—well—of a very particular kind of dungeon-crawling fantasy that is often itself trying to capture the essence of classic Dungeons and Dragons which is itself trying to capture the spirit of a quite specific kind of 20th century pulp fantasy.
There are quite a lot of genres, though, that have never had the “thematic board game” treatment. Science Fiction and Fantasy are all over the place. Detective stories get Cluedo or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. War movies get Escape from Colditz. But I’ve never seen a board game based on—say—a courtroom drama. And unless you count Love Letter, I’d never seen one based on a romantic comedy until I picked up Fog of Love.
Why yes, it did take me nearly a thousand words to get around to telling you which game this post is about. I think by this point I just need to accept that I don’t do brevity.
When I originally saw Fog of Love in my local games store, I decided to give it a miss. Gamer culture has an occasional tendency to be uncharitable to the point of dismissiveness about more mainstream genres, especially romance. So when I saw a game billing itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” I at least half expected it to be full of self-congratulatory cheap shots at the genre and its perceived audience. It wasn’t until I saw the game recommended by Shut Up and Sit Down (who long time followers of my ramblings on board games will know I tend to rely on quite heavily) that I was persuaded to give it a shot.
I’m glad I did. Because while the game isn’t without its flaws, the most important thing I can say about it is that it has tremendous sincerity. One of the things I value most in a thematic board game is for it to make you feel like you are the thing you are supposed to be, and that you are doing the thing you are supposed to be doing. If I am supposed to be a pirate, I want to feel like a pirate. If I am supposed to be fighting a dragon, I want to feel like I am fighting a dragon. If I am supposed to be a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter, I want to feel like a workaholic wedding planner in a tempestuous and potentially doomed relationship with a quirky TV presenter.
I should probably explain.
Fog of Love is a game for exactly two players (in theory, although since it’s very much about the journey, it’s well suited to spectators or doubling-up if you want to play it that way). One player is pink, the other blue. I’ll say at the outset that I’m not totally sure whether I find this coding clever and subversive or still quite problematic. Both players quite explicitly get to define their character’s gender independent of their character’s colour—the blue player can be a girl and the pink player can be a boy—and you can play a same-sex couple if you want to, so I think I mostly come down on the side of “subversive”. The game is ultimately trying to emulate a genre that is often normative in all the ways (especially if you assume it’s specifically trying to emulate movie romcoms rather than romance more broadly) and so it makes sense for the game’s coding to at least superficially evoke the “default” assumptions of the romantic comedy and then give the players freedom to play with those as they choose.
Each player chooses a gender (independent of their colour) by choosing which way up they place their player card. Strictly speaking, unless I’ve missed something in the manual, the game doesn’t actually specify what gender you’re allowed to choose, or which gender corresponds to which side of the card. Again, there’s some fairly heavy coding going on here—each side shows a silhouette and both of them are fairly strongly gender-marked—and I think it’s for the individual player to decide whether that coding is problematically normative or interestingly subversive. If you do feel that it’s a dealbreaker (or even just problematic) that “assign your character a gender using a binary signalling system” is a mandatory part of setup (and in which binary gender may be an assumed mechanic on some cards—I’ve never encountered the mechanic myself so I’m honestly not certain), I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that. On the other hand, if you feel it’s kind of cool that there’s nothing stopping you from setting your character card to the side that shows a tall person with short hair and no obvious breasts wearing a suit, and declaring that your character nevertheless identifies as a heterosexual woman, then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong to feel that either.
Once you’ve chosen your colour and your gender, you pick three Traits out of five options. These traits will have little coloured arrows pointing up or down, each one corresponding to one of six (somewhat clinically named) “personality dimensions” (Discipline, Curiosity, Extroversion, Sensitivity, Gentleness and Sincerity). Your choices during the game will cause you to place either positive or negative “personality tokens” on these “dimensions”, and your overall Satisfaction (this is a game mechanical term) in the relationship will depend in part on how well your relationship reflects your Traits. So if you are a manipulative workaholic, you’ll want to have positive Diligence, but strongly negative Sincerity, while if you’re fun-loving but jealous you’ll want to have positive scores in Extroversion and Sensitivity. Your Traits are hidden from the other player—a key part of the gameplay is getting a sense for what your partner’s personality might actually be like and whether you’re really compatible.
You then pick one Occupation out of three options. Your job has a relatively minor mechanical effect – it will put one personality token either for or against one of the personality aspects—so for example a Royal Heir has a negative point in Discipline, a Criminal has a negative point in Sincerity, a Wedding Planner has a positive point in Sensitivity and so on. In all the times I’ve played the game so far, I’ve always chosen my occupation for coolness value rather than for the points (why would you not pick Royal Heir if you had the choice).
Finally, you draw five Feature cards. These are noticeable, external features (whereas Traits are aspects of your personality) and as such they’re not kept secret. The big twist, though, is that you don’t choose your own Features, you choose the Features of your partner. Maybe you really liked his nerdy glasses? Or were really drawn to their broad shoulders? Or perhaps (and this is a real option) you just really, really dug her body odour? The Features you choose let you customise your partner’s Personality Tokens, meaning you can improve the chances of getting a relationship that matches your Traits. Although you might also just want to design somebody who you genuinely think would be cool to be in a relationship with.
The game has a fairly simple play cycle. You pick a scenario, which tells you how many acts you will play, how many scenes are in each act, and what decks you will draw your scene cards from. From there, players take it in turns to play a Scene from their hand, and then one or other player chooses what happens in that scene, gaining or losing Satisfaction and placing Personality Tokens depending on their choices or the choices of their partner. You can gain Satisfaction if your choices are compatible (which isn’t always the same as making the same choice) and you can lose Satisfaction if your choices are incompatible. There are also some Scenes that just always make you lose Satisfaction (like the “Stupid Fight” scene), some more complicated types of scenes (like Secrets, which don’t go into play immediately, but have different effects depending on whether or not they get revealed) and some scenes that modify or react to other scenes (like a hasty retraction or a weekend in a log cabin).
It’s all very impressionistic—I send you flowers, we win a trip to Italy, we have a fight over nothing, you randomly get amnesia, that kind of thing—but it comes together to give a remarkably clear sense of what your relationship is like. You find yourself saying things like “I can’t believe that I defended you to my mother, and now it turns out you’re already married!” or (with a bit more detachment) “you know, at the start of this relationship I thought you were a jerk while I was basically a nice person, but I’ve just realised that I’ve actually been a horrendously manipulative arsehole this whole time”.
Either the great strength or great weakness of Fog of Love, depending on how you approach it, is that it doesn’t really have any set goals. It’s almost more a roleplaying game than a board game. At the start of the game, characters are dealt a hand of Destiny cards (all initially the same) representing ways your character might hope or believe that the relationship could play out. Some are positive (“Love Team” or “Equal Partnership”), some less so (“Dominance” or “Heartbreaker”) or bittersweet (“Honourable Exit”). As the game progresses, each player will discard down to exactly two of these Destinies and, at the end of the game, will choose one to be their Final Destiny. In the final reckoning, your Personality Dimensions and Satisfaction are all added up and compared to the requirements of the Destiny card. If they match, you achieve your Destiny, if they don’t, you don’t.
But there’s nothing in the game that especially tells you that achieving your Destiny means that you “win”. Indeed it frequently stresses the opposite—the point of the game is to explore the relationship between the characters. Sure it’s nice if you wind up with the partnership of equals that you were both working towards, and it’s good to know that the fictional people you’ve been simultaneously rooting for and messing with for the past hour will go on to be happy. But there’s also something weirdly satisfying about getting to the end of the relationship and realising that because I was going for an Equal Partnership and you were going for Unconditional Love that you will ultimately be happy because I have everything I want, while I will always feel that something is slightly wrong and will never be truly settled in a relationship with somebody who always puts my needs above their own.
I’m sure there are some people who will find all of this mechanical vagueness positively infuriating. What, after all, is the point of this complex system of tracking a half-dozen different aspects of your relationship plus the individual satisfaction of both parties, if there’s not actually any mechanical incentive to care about any of it? And that’s a valid criticism from a certain perspective. Although taken to its most logical extreme you could make the same complaint against any game—there is nothing intrinsic to Chess that requires you to prefer that you checkmate your opponent rather than that your opponent checkmate you, after all. Perhaps the best way to think about all of the Traits and Occupations and Features and Destinies is as a set of very loose improv promts. I mean yes, you could view your starting Trait choice of “jealous manipulative workaholic” as just giving you a shopping list of Personality Tokens to collect over the course of the game—and if you’re having trouble working out how to make decisions “match the symbols on your traits” is a good fallback—but really the game is set up with the assumption that you should just try to, y’know, act like a jealous, manipulative workaholic.
Observations and Nitpicks
One of the things I often find fascinating in games is when elements with no mechanical consequences whatosever completely change your perspective of the experience. The interesting thing about Fog of Love is that it’s built almost entirely of elements with no mechanical consequences. Your character’s gender—for example—has no impact on gameplay that I have yet discovered, but the same bundle of characteristics and even the same scenes suggest something very different when you’re playing through them from the perspective of a dude called Chet rather than a woman called Althea. Your occupation puts a single personality token on the board, but it completely skews the way you play your character. The prince of a small European country just doesn’t have the same kind of story as a plucky cat burglar or a driven politician. The game is excellent at making you engage with it on its own terms, to think as much about what will lead to a desirable outcome for the whole story of your relationship about what makes the little points sliders go up or down.
I will say that some of its features aren’t entirely satisfying from a mechanical perspective, and others aren’t entirely satisfying from a narrative perspective. The game’s core system of using “scene” cards to frame events within your relationship is strong, but the refinements that are built into that—Secrets that don’t come into play at once, minor scenes that can be spent in response to existing scenes, scenes that shuffle other scenes into the deck and so on—sometimes feel a little under-developed. While the game is mostly a sandbox or a set of improvisational toys, it has just enough structure built into it that you can become tempted to pursue mechanical goals, but that attempt is almost always futile. You can’t really try to reveal your partner’s secrets or overcome your more antisocial personality traits—you’ll either get a card that does that or you won’t—and If you start going too hard after the little coloured arrows, you’ll find yourself thinking “crap, I really need to get more greens in my hand” rather than “I am making an effort to be a kinder and gentler person and persuade my partner to be the same”, which dents the illusion somewhat.
Narratively, something that struck me early on is that there’s very little incentive to change your character’s personality Traits other than a concern that you won’t get enough points in them. If you’re cynical, manipulative and narrow-minded, and your partner happens not to be going for kind, innocent or adventurous, then you can just carry on pursuing your cynical, manipulative, narrow-minded ways without it in at all impinging on your future happiness. And I’ll admit that part of me likes that there isn’t quite the same set of normative value judgements you might ordinarily associate with a romantic comedy, where the immutable laws of Hollywood state that some types of person are inherently broken and that their only hope of happiness is that somebody will come along to change them. I do actually appreciate that in FoL an insecure flirtatious workaholic doesn’t have to stop being either insecure, flirtatious or a workaholic to find love. And maybe—thinking about it—there’s value in a story that’s about two fundamentally flawed people who find acceptance in each other, even if that ultimately comes about because they happened to pick Traits that didn’t overlap. In many ways this is another example of the fascinating effects of the game’s non-mechanical coding. Just as there is absolutely nothing in the game’s rules that says the blue player is the boy, or that setting your character card to the side that shows the petite silhouette with long hair and boobs means that your character identifies as female, so there is nothing that says it is more desirable for your character to be kind, just and secure rather than a jealous irresponsible hypocrite. And ironically because the “positive” and “negative” coded personality traits are mechanically equivalent, I’ve often come to the end of a game and felt that the “just” “kind” “adventurous” person was way more of a cynical manipulative douchebag than the “manipulative”, “cynical”, “narrow-minded” one.
A secondary niggle I have with the game’s mechanics is that because there are only six different “personality dimensions” with positive or negative options for each, there are only twelve ways that any given Trait or Choice can code mechanically. But there are well more than twelve Trait cards. They are partly differentiated because some traits require you to only care about the distribution of your own Personality Tokens, while others require you to care about your partner’s as well. And this actually leads to some rather clever and nuanced distinctions: a “greedy” person needs to have a personal total of three negative points in Sincerity, but doesn’t at all care if their partner is ragingly sincere. A “manipulative” person, by contrast, seeks not only to behave insincerely themselves, but to actively undermine the sincerity of their partner. You get similar pairs with things like “down to earth” (“I am not curious, but don’t mind if you are”) vs “narrow minded” (“I am not curious, and you won’t be either”), and so on.
The problem here is that because you do have an (admittedly weak) incentive to pursue personality tokens that match your character’s personality, you’ll tend to pick the choices that give you the points you need, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect the kind of personality you’re trying to portray. A manipulative person and a pretentious person, or a cynical person and a cocky person, or a spiritual person and a person with a profound sense of justice don’t necessarily act the same way. And I should stress that this is a very minor niggle, about as far from deal-breaking as you can possibly get, but just sometimes it jolts you out of the experience when—for example—your partner asks if you’ll convert to their religion, and you realise that saying you will causes you to lose Sincerity even though you feel it’s exactly the sort of thing that your character—a wide-eyed innocent committed to finding happiness though Unconditional Love (both of which specifically require Sincerity to work)—would do. You get similar issues with the changes in satisfaction that come from a particular set of choices. You lose satisfaction for agreeing to lie for your partner, even if you’re a cynical manipulative criminal.
Fog of Love is really hard to talk about because even by the standards of quirky and unusual games like T.I.M.E. Stories it’s genuinely unique. I’ve never played a game like it and there will probably never be another game like it, because its whole structure is single-mindedly dedicated to its core purpose of recreating the romantic comedy experience in a board game and, despite the one or two gripes I mention above, it basically nails it.
I’ll often try to end my board game reviews by addressing explicitly how I think the game will work for three groups of people: non-gamers or causal gamers, families, and couples (in the “two player” sense rather than necessarily in the “romantic partners” sense).
I’ll start with the obvious one. Fog of Love is explicitly designed as a two player game, so it’s a fundamentally satisfying two-player experience. If you’re looking for something to play with your partner or with the one friend you can reliably get to come over and play boardgames, it’s a really good pick. Obviously you do need to make sure that whoever you play it with is the sort of person you’re happy sort-of-roleplaying through a romantic relationship with, so that’s something you have to take into account. I don’t think that there’s any realistic probability of the fake, movie-level relationship drama in Fog of Love leading to real-life relationship drama (although it does make you consider some interesting questions about real life relationships, like whether it’s really a good thing to be with somebody who cares more about you than they do about themselves, or how you should react when your partner gets amnesia, quits being a massage therapist to become the Crown Prince of Ruritania, and then tells you that they’re really sixteen) but chances are not everybody you know is going to be comfortable spending ninety minutes basically just pretending that they’re going out with you. So, y’know, think about that.
This leads to the next group I like to consider, which is families. And … yeah this is going to be one where mileage varies hugely. As ever, I don’t have kids, but I think that I might be a bit weirded out by a game where I had to pretend I was dating my imaginary ten-year-old. The game also includes a very small amount of very slightly adult content. Not much, there’s a scene where one of you suggests watching an erotic movie, and there might be one or two more with content on that level (the scene decks are large and I don’t think we’ve seen more than half of any of them). It’s certainly “romantic comedy” level rather than “adult film” level but, as always, comfort levels are going to vary wildly with that kind of thing.
The final group of people I like to think about when I review games are non-gamers, or casual gamers, or non-obsessively-nerdy-four-thousand-word-blog-post-writing gamers. And here I’m going to ponder for a bit. Apologies in advance. I think it’s easy to assume that what puts non-gamers off of hobby-style gaming is the complexity—all the fiddly counters and dice and rules and attacks of opportunity. But I’m not actually sure that’s completely true. After all, people do complicated things all the time. A lot of very, very popular very, very mainstream hobbies are extremely complicated if you get even the tiniest bit interested in them. Look at baking. I mean, why do you need to have more than two types of sugar? How can there even be more than two types of sugar? And people have trouble with the difference between High Elves and Wood Elves. I ask you.
Sorry, I digress.
Point being, there’s a tendency for gamers to assume that what puts non-gamers off of gaming is all the scary intimidating rules stuff. And perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but I sometimes suspect that this assumption is a bit, well, patronising. It seems grounded in the idea that nerds are intrinsically better at dealing with difficult things than non-nerds. And anecdotally, I’ve known just as many people who were put off D&D by the fact that the game doesn’t have an obvious objective or a clear winner as by all the levels, classes, and spell slots.
This isn’t to say that I would discourage non-gamers or new gamers from trying Fog of Love. It’s mechanically clean, easy to understand, and has a really neat system where the decks of cards come in a preselected order with tutorial rules mixed in, so the game basically walks you through your first game step by step. It is actually accessible in that regard, and it probably will appeal to people who aren’t super into fiddly counters or who prefer stories about kissing to stories about stabbing. But the structure is unusual, and I’m not totally convinced that everybody will buy into it. It’s a great game, and does exactly what it sets out to do. But as a way to convince people who are sceptical about board gaming to give board gaming a try, I’m not totally certain that “we’re two people who are in a relationship, and we’re going to make a bunch of choices that affect sort of what our relationship is like, and it might end happily or sadly and either way it’s okay because it’s really about the journey and the story” might be a bit of a tough sell.
Just very, very quickly (because I’m aware that this conclusion is getting really long) I’d also just add that there are only four scenarios in the main box, and the first one is basically a tutorial and you don’t really get to play the full game until scenario three. But I should stress that this isn’t like T.I.M.E. Stories or Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. Each scenario is a framework for you to riff around, and so each one is eminently replayable.
tl;dr Fog of Love is like nothing else. It bills itself as “Romantic Comedy as a Board Game” and while that tagline might sound either uninspired or hokey, it at least has the virtue of being completely accurate. It’s a board game that actually makes you feel like you’re improvising a romcom. And that’s really cool. It’s definitely worth checking out if you are even a little bit interested.