To take the idea from video games, background music is a song that will typically play on a loop for a long time. This is different from a soundtrack which can be more cinematic and grand, and really speak directly to the events occurring. Background music instead stays just out of focus, and plays repeatedly. Board games don’t (except for a few rare gimmicks) include actual music, but they do have actions that players will have to perform repeatedly. There are several things game designers can learn from background music.
NES and Super Nintendo games are often considered the peak of great background music. Game designers and composers really had to work to fit a variety of songs that inspired players into tight memory constraints. This resulted in some of the most memorable and widely known tunes, like the Mario theme or the original Legend of Zelda theme. The NES Megaman games are great achievements of this. Each level has a unique song, and most manage to be catchy without being annoying.
What is it about those songs that make them work so well? I see three main features that contribute.
First, they add a thematic touch. The instruments, keys, and tempos help guide players emotions, which makes an experience stand out in memory. Indeed, years later, good background music can remind you of the emotions you felt while playing.
Another element is that (for good background music) it doesn’t get annoying or feel repetitive. Because the composers were aware that they were working in loops, they designed songs that have variety and are constantly moving forward. The “end” of the loop segues perfectly into the start. The fanfare-like intro bar of the Mario theme occurs right at the end of the loop. Leaving it unfinished would just feel wrong.
Background music also needs to stay out of the way of the action. It has to, because it runs asynchronously. This means that it needs to be appropriate to whatever the player is doing, and might need to be stopped abruptly due to player actions (like losing a life, or completing a level). This means that the background music can’t draw much focus away from the game action.
What elements of a game are like background music? One way to identify them is to look at your game and see what players do over and over, especially things that don’t directly impact gameplay. Often this takes the form of a maintenance phase. In Agricola, players must reset the resources at the beginning of every round. This is the background music of the game, but players have to focusing on adjusting each space, instead of the upcoming decisions. Power Grid has a similar maintenance phase, where the resources are resupplied. The resupply rate changes twice in the game, which requires even more attention.
In Settlers of Catan, the background music is drawing and paying cards. Players can draw from the supply simultaneously, making it quick and easy. San Juan often has players drawing cards from the supply or discarding, but the order doesn’t matter, so players can do this simultaneously.
In Ticket to Ride, there are two bits of background music: moving up the score track and replacing cards drawn from the display. These two things are done quickly and easily by the active player, allowing everyone else to focus on their own decisions. at Unpub4, I saw Ben Rosset teaching a game of Brew Crafters: The Travel Card Game, but he sat out and replaced cards drawn from the deck, letting everyone else focus on their hands
The next question to ask is how can game elements be improved by thinking of them as background music? I’m going to focus on refilling the resources in Agricola, and two actions from my own game, New Bedford: moving ships, which occurs at the end of most rounds, and counting whale costs, which will occur repeatedly as players try to determine how much money they need.
Focus on making these repeated actions simple, so the player doesn’t have to think about them every time. Agricola makes the player grab different numbers of resources, and which resources changes throughout the game. This means the player constantly has to grab the right resources in the right numbers and put them on the right spaces, which is a lot of attention. In New Bedford, moving all the ships closer to shore at the end of each round is pretty easy, even with many ships. I think it could be even better by simplifying the motion into turning a dial, rather than moving each ship. One of the first changes I made was to add the cost to the whale tokens, so players could simply count, instead of doing harder math.
Another way to make these actions easy to do is to make them very tightly integrated into the theme. Adding wooden bits to a space doesn’t feel too too thematic in Agricola. Having ships constantly moving back toward home makes perfect sense in New Bedford. The idea of paying the lay for whale tokens (which I just discussed) is drawn directly from historic practice. Although I had to adapt this to make it work for the game, it gives players another thematic element to bring them into the game.
Another way is to work on making these actions easy to do asynchronously, by which I mean have one or more players be able to do different parts. In Agricola, there isn’t enough room for more than two players to be putting bits on the board, and it often ends with trying to make sure each space was supplied correctly. The game can’t advance until that occurs. In New Bedford, there isn’t much need for more than one player to move the ships, but another player can (usually) move ahead to drawing new whale tokens from the bag. So the game progresses, while the movement goes on in the background, and the more interesting activity of whaling takes the focus. I moved the whale tokens to player boards, so that players could each look at the whales on their own ships whenever they wanted, instead of having to pause the game and count a stack on the main board.
By the end of Agricola, players have replaced resources 14 times, an activity which gets longer each time, making it seem more annoying and repetitive. Even though New Bedford has only two fewer rounds, moving the ships in New Bedford usually occurs only 10 times. Counting whales will occur repeatedly over the game, but gradually ramps up, and simplifies again as players return ships. And tracking the whales on player boards gives players a place to assign money to be used in the future, reducing the number of recounts.
Great background music sometimes sets the mood and drives home the theme. It can almost disappear, or become tightly linked with memories. There are game elements that players will encounter over and over again, that behave like background music for your board game. Use that in your design to focus players on the important and interesting actions. Do that, and players will have your game running through their heads hours afterwords.