Into the Breach – the immersive appeal of the digital board game

By Neil Merrett

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Into the Breach, released on Nintendo Switch in 2018, developed by Subset Games

In a world of ubiquitous microcomputers, the humble board game should be an anachronism consigned to a pre-digital age of entertainment.  Yet the stripped back experience of rolling dice, picking cards and moving pieces around a board within carefully structured rules seemingly lends itself to good video game design based on the idea of doing more with less.

Into the Breach is set amidst a desperate struggle to protect the infrastructure of a world overwhelmed by an insectoid invasion force that seeks to supplant humanity as the dominant species of a future earth.  It is a tale of impossible choices and the perils of desperate, limited time travel to set right moments of personal failure.

The critically acclaimed game does all this essentially on a chess board.  Yet this shouldn’t really be a surprise when you considers the complexities of an ancient game that has outlasted generations of humanity without a need to drastically reshape its simple 64 grid board.

Certainly, there are similarities between Into the Breach and chess.  Both titles provide a limited number of pieces with unique limits on how they can move around the game grid.  Rivals then take it in turns to try and manoeuvre and out-think the other side so that their opponent’s presence is eradicated or incapacitated on the board.

The long-held view of game development is that the ultimate aim of the medium will be total immersion in a virtual realm where we can act out fantasies and all forms of wish fulfilment without real-world consequences.  Think VR technology that can put us directly into a world that we can manipulate and seemingly touch as if really there.

Certainly, movies such as Ready Player One paint the future of video games as one giant homogenous online virtual world that we must plug into if we really want to feel connected and a part of a new world.

Yet this is only one potential future of the type of games that players will spend hours losing themselves in.

Into the Breach doesn’t need to be a first-person game where you are thrown into the cockpit of a giant mech as you tried to fight back the tide of insectoid aliens in real-time to be immersive.

Its appeal is based instead on the slow burning, long-form appeal of considering a wide variety of offensive and defensive options with an eye on preventing or blocking your opponent from undertaking a certain action.  Sacrificing a residential building, which inconveniently displays the number of individuals living inside is intended to have strategic consequences.

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It can be a slow and considered game where the player is charged to carefully consider every move and action they take.  The time travel mechanic of the game’s plot is particularly well integrated into how the player develops and plays to the wider themes of acceptable sacrifice.

Rather than having all of the player’s three game pieces outright destroyed, games will more likely end by failing to protect key infrastructure and power grids. Once the player’s power grid – think an energy bar for your surroundings – is fully depleted, then there is an immediate game over.

Even here, one of the surviving characters the player has controlled can be sent back in time with their unlocked skills and level ups still intact to start the beginning of the conflict all over again.

This one player is all that remains of previous games, with everything else, including your mechs, lost to an abandoned timeline.

Within each stage, there is one option to use time travel to undo a turn where the player may have squandered an unseen opportunity to attack or defend, or perhaps just have slipped on a wrong button.

Sacrifice, loss, tragedy, blind luck and pragmatic thinking are all reflected in the game’s tightly designed structure, where the player is given full information on the enemy’s intended plans of attack for the upcoming turn.

You are told exactly what their intentions will be, with each turn requiring the player to counteract an attack or make use of local environments and the enemy’s own attack patterns to try and limit damage and unlock an even more impressive fighting force.

It is a prime example of how timeless the tenets of good board game design can be, and how influential they remain on our current generation of games.

This is essentially about reducing the complexities of finance, war and even more everyday human fare such as dating or managing a virus to very specific components.  Some of the greatest games often boil down to granting the player very specific options of charity or spite towards another player of computer – ideally without any real-world consequences.

Monopoly, a game dating back for the best part of a century, remains a hugely popular game based that seeks to convey the themes of property and money, with friends and loved ones rolling dice and acting in the role of rival corporations seeking to bankrupt each other.  This is done largely through rent and the battle to control or trade utilities and transport links for a more predatory property empire.

The game boils down the essence of our financial system, including its inherent cruelty and morality, to owning hotels and paying taxes, all while removing the real-world complexities of legal wrangling, contract negotiations and politics.

Yet its simple structure somehow captures the very essence of financial power and the relative joy of tax rebates through a few roles of the dice and a die-cast cruise ship.

Into the Breach similarly doesn’t go in for the cinematic action-heavy gun-play of a game such as Halo, where the player sees the world through the eyes of a lone super soldier and must shoot and punch their way to triumph against impossible odds.  This is all aided with an orchestral score and 3D graphics.

Into the Breach retains the 2D appeal of chess boards to build a strategically complex game that seeks to capture the desperation of humanity ravaged by war and outnumbered.

It is an age-old concept in a very modern guise, and the future of gaming is all the stronger for it.

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