Score Board: Soundtracks for Tabletop Games, Part One

Posted by Amoebite, October 2, 2017 07:55pm | Post a Comment

By Chris Curtis

Nearly any social gathering benefits from the addition of well-chosen music, and a board gaming get-together is no exception. Of course, you could just throw on some random favorite albums and leave it at that. But it’s easy to take your game session to the next level by selecting an appropriate, themed musical backdrop! Just as an artfully composed soundtrack greatly enhances the movie experience, the proper choice of gaming music can help create atmosphere and accentuate the drama and laughter around the table.

So let’s see if we can make some connections between playing music and playing games, and generate some enthralling synergy from their combination. We’ll start by taking a trip back to the Middle Ages by way of the 1960s…

After more than a dozen years of success with folk-based indie label Elektra, which he started from his college dorm room, Jac Holzman established Nonesuch Records in 1964 with the goal of making classical recordings affordable and accessible. Nonesuch LP releases were priced at $2.50, half the cost of a typical classical release, comparable to that of a quality paperback book. The label’s first album was a French recording of Renaissance vocal music and it set the template for the first few dozen subsequent releases: quality European recordings licensed by Holzman at cut-rate prices, attractively packaged in the label’s house graphic style.

By the 1967 release of In a Medieval Garden by the Stanley Buetens Lute Ensemble, however,Splendor, In A Medieval Garden Nonesuch had begun picking up domestic talent and expanding their musical scope (including commissioning a groundbreaking electronic piece by composer Morton Subotnick, Silver Apples of the Moon, itself an excellent board game accompaniment). Buetens, a former New Yorker attending graduate school at Stanford University in Northern California, recorded just one LP for Nonesuch, but it’s an evocative delight. With the group’s focus on the lute, a stringed instrument descended from the Middle Eastern oud with some similarities to the later-to-come guitar, this gentle album effortlessly conjures up another era and milieu. Recorders and vocals offer up subtle melodies over instrumentally sparse but often rhythmically complex backings.

Stanley Buetens
Stanley Buetens via

With its transporting qualities, this collection of early music makes an excellent complement to many tabletop games set in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, such as Carcassonne, Alhambra, Love Letter, Biblios, Kingdomino and Queendomino, and especially a recent obsession of mine -- Splendor.

I’m a bit of a late arrival to the Splendor party, as the game was released in 2014. I’ve only been actively into modern gaming for the last couple of years, and when I started hearing about it, Splendor seemed like it might be a bit too dry and puzzly for my tastes. Since giving it a try several months ago, though, I’ve become a dedicated convert.

Players take on the role of Renaissance jewel merchants aiming to build an economic machine by clever selection of cards and gem tokens. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a game of buying stuff to buy additional stuff at a much cheaper price (or sometimes get it for free!). This is somehow just inherently fun and satisfying. In gamer lingo, this type of mechanism is called "engine building." Designer Marc AndrĂ©’s game is pure elegance in its structure, deliciously distilling to a pure essence its core mechanics. On your turn, you either take chips (gem tokens) or buy a card from a tableau of 12 on the table. There are a few other rules and options but not many; new players can be up and running after less than five minutes of rulesplaining. Despite its simple framework, there are a multitude of strategic approaches to victory.

Everyone I’ve played with has really enjoyed Splendor. They admire the expressive artwork and remark upon the quality, heft, and feel-appeal of the gem tokens. And they’re surprised that a relatively thinky, somewhat serious game can be such a pleasure to play. I feel the same way! I really love this oddly addictive game.

However, the main criticism the title gets is the seemingly arbitrary nature of the Renaissance/gemstone theme…it’s practically the archetypal “pasted-on” theme, a scourge of innumerable games. Admittedly, it could have easily been re-themed, but the game’s innate grace and refinement seem to suit the subject matter. It feels like a classic game that has stood the test of time, despite its relatively recent vintage. And here’s where the soundtrack really completes the picture, as Stanley Buetens’ harmonious sound provides an elegant and stately backdrop to gameplay. Playing Splendor is not the most interactive or chatty experience, and there can be periods of silent brain-burning and concentration. Beyond just filling in those silent gaps, In a Medieval Garden really helps to set the tone and adds an extra layer of enjoyment, nicely tying together the whole experience.

Another excellent Nonesuch title in a similar vein is Pleasures of the Royal Courts by David Munrow and the Early Music Consort of London. This one is a bit more rhythmic, and as its title implies, has more of a “regal” quality, conjuring up stereotypical images of lords, ladies, and royalty in refined and opulent surroundings. Nonesuch released dozens of albums of Early Music, and most are worthy of exploration. True to Jak Holzman’s original intentions, most of the catalog is still inexpensive: though currently out of print, these titles make routine appearances in Amoeba’s used (and sometimes clearance!) bins. Do a bit of digging for vinyl and CDs in the Classical section and you are liable to discover more affordable gems than in a game of Splendor!

Now let’s jump ahead several hundred years, take a quick stop in the late-20th century, and then journey onward to uncertain futures…

A product of early '80s Detroit, Michigan, where socioeconomic decline from the city’s Motor City heydayCybotron, Enter was already in stark evidence, Cybotron’s Enter crafts a paranoid and claustrophobic vision while - true to the city’s inventive spirit - it innovates with electronic textures and grooves. The core duo of Cybotron, Juan Atkins and Rick Davis, met at community college, bonding over their mutual interests: synthesizer music by the likes of Kraftwerk and Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the writings of futurist Alvin Toffler.

Toffler had a huge bestseller in 1970 with Future Shock, which dealt with human fatigue from too much change coming at too rapid of a pace. The 1980 follow-up, The Third Wave, described society’s transition from the first wave, agriculture, to the second, the Industrial Revolution (which led to Detroit’s golden era), to the third, the Information Age. The arrival of the the third wave delivered a crushing blow to industrial Midwestern cities, of which Atkins and Davis were acutely aware.

The older Davis, who was a Vietnam vet, developed a philosophy based on mysticism, numerology, and Toffler’s writings and took the alias “3070." Atkins was adept at creating “futuristic” words and had a notebook full of coined terms like metroplex, transmat, and Cybotron, which the pair took as their name.

The duo achieved enough regional success with several self-released singles to attract the attention of the Berkeley-based label Fantasy. Fantasy is probably best known for Creedence Clearwater Revival and '50s and '60s recordings by Dave Brubeck, Cal Tjader, and other jazz artists, along with quality funk and disco releases of the '70s from the likes of The Blackbyrds and Sylvester. By the early-80s, the label was issuing quite a few 12” dance singles in the boogie, synthpop, and electro-funk genres. Despite their synthetic qualities and shared aim to move booties, Cybotron stood out as an anomaly amongst the other artists on Fantasy (and the greater urban dance scene in general) - less frivolous, more forward-thinking, more thoughtful. In New York, Afrika Bambaataa was developing a somewhat similar style along with producers Arthur Baker and John Robie, also indebted to Kraftwerk but with stronger rhythmic propulsion. But this variant of hip-hop still lacked Cybotron’s cinematic scope, sense of mood, and depth of George Clinton-style funkiness.

Enter is single-minded in its mission and deviates little from its mood of tension and angst. “Cosmic Raindance” lightens the mood slightly, but still has an undercurrent of anxiety and intensity. “El Salvador” heightens its epic potency with combat sound effects. Usually, the vocals of Davis/3070 are intoned in a slightly sinister spoken robotic cadence, but at times - alas - he gets a bit over the top, sounding like an unlikely cross between Jimi Hendrix and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Other times the electric guitar (provided by honorary member Jon-5) is a bit high in the mix, distracting from the rich electronic textures. These are minor caveats for what is an otherwise superb album.

With its strong atmosphere and John Carpenter-styled synth riffs, Cybotron’s music makes an excellent soundtrack to games set in a dystopian future. Critic Simon Reynolds has suggested how well their music would have scored the original Robocop, which was set in a crime-ridden, totalitarian-tinged future Detroit. The outstanding sci-fi game Coup, which I’ve discussed in a previous blog, is an excellent choice to pair with Enter. Other pair-ups to consider are the monster mash-ups King of Tokyo or King of New York, games set in the Android universe, like Netrunner and New Angeles, the Mad Max-inspired Wasteland Express Delivery Service, or even the simple roll-fest Zombie Dice.

Enter (which was reissued several years back as an expanded CD and double LP containing additional singles and alternate mixes) was to be the only album the group released with the original line-up. Davis wanted to explore a more rock-based, industrial sound and continued issuing music under the Cybotron banner, while Atkins went on to become a leading innovator of Detroit Techno, his vision of electronic dance becoming more utopian with releases under such names as Model 500 and Infiniti.

So what about an all-purpose backdrop for gaming, adaptable to a wider variety of playing situations? An Cosmic Machineexcellent choice would be Cosmic Machine: The Sequel, French label Because Music’s second compendium of spacey and synthy Gallic sounds. This edition has a bit more variety than the first, with slightly less emphasis on dance-oriented tracks. Largely an instrumental affair, vocals are minimal when they appear at all. The tracks all date from the '70s and '80s, and range from rare library music to better-known singles and album cuts. Some of the tunes have an epic, soundtracky vibe, some get funky and groovy, others seem to anticipate house and techno styles, and of course, there is a touch of French whimsy. The musicians excel in the use of the studio as instrument, crafting primarily electronic landscapes with flowing textures and a melodic sensibility. Artist Richard Pinhas appears in three guises on the compilation: in his group Heldon, under the alias Video Liszt, and under his own name with the magical “Ruitor,” one of the highlights of the collection. Spectral, crystalline synth arpeggios churn and gurgle gorgeously atop graceful reverberations. The track manages to sound machine-like yet simultaneously deeply human.

Aside from the excellent music contained within, the packaging for the album is quite attractive, with Heavy Metal-style artwork and copious liner notes. Cosmic Machine: The Sequel makes a solid backdrop for a great variety of games. Its spacey orientation obviously makes it ideal for science fiction titles, but it works well with other themes just as well. Due to its varied sound palette and wide range of moods, the compilation expertly accompanies the range of emotional moods around the gaming table.

In the next blog we’ll explore exotic Polynesia, encounter secret agents, and hear a clock used as a rhythm box. Until then, game on, brothers and sisters!

Cosmic Machine

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Soundtracks For Tabletop Games (2), Chris Curtis (7), Games (10), Tabletop Games (8), Board Games (6), Tabletop Gaming (8), Stanley Buetens (1), Alvin Toffler (1), Cybotron (1), Splendor (1)