Saturday 12 May 2018

Guest Post: Board Game Soundtracks

The best bit about playing board games (apart from punching out the cardboard and organising everything, obviously) is sharing them with lovely people. I was lucky enough to spend a whole weekend with two of the loveliest recently, when I went to stay half way across the country with my friends Piete and Pam.

We got through quite a few games over the weekend, including Azul, Onitama, Fresco and Skull, but the new thing for me was in how we played them. Piete hand-picks a soundtrack for every game they play, and it really changes the experience - so much so that I said 'hey, you should really write a guest post about this!'.

And very kindly, he did! I wonder if we can find a use for my very first vinyl...

Dancing in the street vinyl


The soundtrack to your games

We've been playing board games for the better part of a decade, and since we only see many of our gaming friends once or twice a year, I've often used the gaming time as an opportunity to put on the most recent band/album/stuff that's caught my imagination.

Recently though, I've ended up concentrating too much on the music and having "feeling clashes", where the game is making me feel one thing, but the music is evoking something entirely different, or in the case of background silence I've found that it has been challenging to immerse myself fully in the games.

So I struck upon the idea of looking for soundtracks for the games we've been playing, to better align what I should be feeling with what I was feeling. Searching the interwebs for inspiration it turns out I'm not the first person to have this idea (obviously!), and more importantly, there is a lot of inspiration out there!

Music on the mind

So why bother with a sound track? Since (most) board games don't come with a sound track, it's not part of the design, but look at other mediums like films and computer games. These are much more aural experiences, and sound is used to enhance certain feelings or emotions.

In films: the orchestra swells with the hero's chest as he embraces his destiny; it lurks in the dark and pounces for the jump-scare in horror; and offers pacing and a sense of urgency in action films.

In games: a jaunty tune supports the gentle bustle and safety of a town; a haunted forest might feel a bit tense or suspenseful; and getting into combat suddenly provokes feelings of danger.

Pam's been playing the Legend of Zelda a lot, and the combat music there appears to make you feel at risk, or in danger. Compared to something like Final Fantasy, where the music starts and you're suddenly very powerful.

Try it yourself: switch the sound track to your favourite game, and see how you feel when you play it, or if you find yourself fighting a really tense and difficult boss... hit the mute button or swap it out for calmer, classical tunes.

This extends outside of just those two mediums of course, so if you want a truly hilarious experience, grab your phone and headphones, and listen to Yakety Sax while shopping in Tesco!

Borrowing with pride

So if it works for other mediums, it should work for us!

There are many sources of material for extending your auditory extravaganza if you want to do it from scratch, but the easiest first choice would be to check streaming services and try Melodice for game playlists - searching for "<name of game>" and "soundtrack" often brings back a plethora of results.
Melodice website

If that doesn't do it for you, maybe borrow from a producer who knows what they're doing. Game and film studios both spend at least some of their huge budgets on music, and at least some of that on the score, which is a great source of material for game sound tracks.

There are broadly three categories of sounds that you might care about in the context of gaming: ambient, soundtrack and score.

Ambient are the noises of the area. These are sounds you might find birds tweeting in the forest, or mutterings and cutlery sounds in a coffee shop.

Soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag, it could be rock/pop music from the films or it could be ...

Score. This is the incidental music that supports the film, usually. These are the big swells and long music passages that create all that dramatic tension or release!

Of course, there's that fourth option which is common or garden "music" as well. Consider different genres beyond just pop and rock, like jazz and funk, R&B, classical, and the subgenres amongst them, and then the various periods (so 90s pop will be a different vibe to 70s, to 80s), and even the locality - searching for country-based playlists can offer another option.

I love music, so over the years in addition to the music, I've gathered a collection of scores and soundtracks from games, films, television and anime, so have a rummage around your own MP3 library, but you can find a ton of this stuff on Spotify, Amazon Prime and other good music subscription services, as well as YouTube and Tabletop Audio. On the purchase front, obviously wherever you'd find music, but also check out the various options on bandcamp.comErdenstern produce music with this in mind!

Some of our biggest successes are directly stolen from computer games:

  • Time Stories: Marcy Case - The Last of Us
  • Scythe - Civilization VI
  • The Captain is Dead - Space Quest 4 and Space Quest 6

TIME Stories | Random Nerdery

Genre and period pieces:
  • T.I.M.E Stories: Asylum - Bohren & Der Club Of Gore (credit to BGG forum for this suggestion!)
  • Pandemic Iberia - classical Spanish guitar playlists and mixes
  • Onitama - traditional Japanese koto and shakuhachi albums
And we've borrowed a few bits from films, too:
  • T.I.M.E Stories (mission briefing) - Recognizer from Tron: Legacy (again credit to BGG forum!)
  • Fireteam Zero - Resident Evil soundtrack

Change it up

In my experience, supporting the game with a theme- or era-appropriate sound track tends to enhance my immersion, but there's also another trick you can play if you want to change how the game is perceived: pick a theme- or era-INappropriate track!

Playing a game like Azul with some calming tunes offers focus on your individual game, but switch to an epic soundtrack (like Tron!) and you've got yourself a very definite versus game where you must destroy your opponent... or in our case, ignore the third player who quietly smashed us both.

Azul | Random Nerdery

The crescendo

We have a Sonos speaker right next to the gaming table and a Chromecast connected to the television, connected to a different Sonos in the living room, so getting sound from many sources to the right place can be a bit of a faff, but once set up works pretty well.

I've yet to settle on a consistent way of storing the choices I've made in the past: I have some YouTube playlists, some stuff favourited in Spotify and Amazon Music, some stuff saved on the Sonos ... it's all a bit of a mess, but I get excited to find new music to a game, so it's become part of how I play now.

One thing I'm not sure of yet is how much sense memory this is going to create, which could be amazing or terrible. I can imagine a future where just hearing the Civ VI sound track alone makes me think of my time with Scythe. It could draw me back into all of the defeats I've suffered and the missteps I've taken, or equally it takes me back to a wonderful time, and I'll reminisce over handling the little cubes, moving the mechs around, and spending quality time with my friends.

I'm hoping for the latter, win or lose with Scythe!

Scythe | Random Nerdery

I think there might be a few requests coming Piete's way in future for some appropriate tune suggestions, and Melodice is going firmly into my bookmarks! A huge thanks to Piete for the brilliant post, and you can see more from him at his website or from Pam at her blog.

If you enjoyed the post you could take a look at my Facebook page and leave a like or come and say hello on my Twitter or Instagram feeds!