In this post I examine the relationship between boards, spaces and pieces. One thing noticeably absent is any discussion of theme. I apologize in advance to all of you theme lovers.
A "board" doesn't have to be a specific board made for the game. The top of a table is a board for many games, such as most card games. One function of a pre-printed board is to assign locations for components. If you print a board for Bridge indicating the location of the alternate deck between rounds, the dummy's hand, the collected tricks, and the score pad and pencil, the game does not essentially change. The conventional locations for the components of Bridge are well known, so a pre-printed board is unnecessary. In addition, the location of these components is only a formality, not a requirement. It makes no difference if you store your tricks "here" or "there".
Board as a Player Separator
The board in a board game serves to divide people from each other. Most boards are located between the players. In Bridge, for example, the two partners are actually across from each other, i.e. with maximum board obstruction and distance, while opponents are only partially occluded by the board, being on your sides. On the other hand, in games such as Chess, Go, or Memoir '44, players or teams may be arranged on either side of the board, in which case the board serves as a dividing gulf between forces. In some cases, all players may be on one side of a board. Often this happens when the board itself functions as an adversary, such as Ra - where the game ends if the board spaces fill up - or Lord of the Rings - where all players act in cooperation.
Another reason to be on different sides of a table is to keep hidden items concealed from other players, or simply to be able to see and converse easily with the other players.
One of the fundamental elements of a board is its creation of unique spaces. An empty table top, or a blank board, has only a single space. Unless the distances between players or the edge of the table are counted for some purpose, any area of the table is equivalent to any other area. Even in this situation, the game may have other defined spaces if each player has their own hand of cards or holdings.
The moment you place something on the table, the table area is now divided into areas. In the case of a board on a table, the simplest division is the area on the board versus the area off of the board. Both areas may sometimes be used during the game. Off the board might indicate a penalty space, such as when a player has to toss something onto the board and misses. Or it might be reserved for a storage space for board elements that are in "hyper-space", which I define as "any area off the playable board space and not in another uniquely defined space such as a player's hand or holdings". Items in hyper-space may, by definition, be moved freely to any other area in hyper-space with no effect on the game play. In essence the board itself exists within hyper-space, as it may be moved around with no effect on the game (assuming you do not knock the pieces over).
Consider Carcassonne. We ignore the scoring board, each player's meeple reserves, and the stacks of unused tiles, all of which are in hyper-space. The first tile placed on the table creates a number of unique areas. Four obvious areas are orthogonal to the tile in that they are distinct playable areas. Areas that abut these four areas orthogonally, either diagonal to the first tile or further away from the first tile, are potential future play areas which must also be considered. A placed tile contains within itself several playable areas specifically reserved for the other game pieces, the meeples, but not for placing other tiles. These spaces come into being the moment a tile is placed on the table. As spaces are created, players are forced to decide how to use these spaces to their benefit.
Polarity, a game of tossing magnetized disks, is another example. The board itself divides the surface into two areas: inside the circle and outside the circle. Once a piece is thrown onto the board, several more spaces are defined: on the piece, touching the piece, close to the piece, far from the piece but usefully between the piece and the edge, far from the piece but not usefully between the piece and the edge.
Now consider a blank sheet that you can use to create a new game. The first marking you place divides the game area into spaces. If you draw a line or edge, it may be dividing between one side and another side of this edge. If you draw a constrained space, such as a circle or square, the division may be between inside of this space and any other spaces. A pattern of constrained spaces describes the boundaries of each location.
Dynamic and Variable Areas
If the spaces on the table are created as you play then the board is dynamic. A dynamic board is one in which the areas are not wholly defined before the game begins. Note that the board in Carcassonne is not really dynamic, as the entire board is in reality a grid of tile sized spaces, the outlines of which are apparent the moment the first tile is placed on the table.
In addition to dynamic, boards may vary as the game continues if the spaces can merge or change shape topologically. If a space changes shape or size, but it's functionality is the same and its relationship to other spaces has not changed, it has not really changed at all as far as the game is concerned.
The most intrinsic aspect of a space is that it is not any other space. For most games, spaces form relationships with other spaces. A set of spaces may form a series such as the movement track in a race game. Or they may define proximity and/or distance, such as hex areas in a war game. They divide territory, such that applicable traits of one space are different from that of another, such as what resources are available to you if your pieces is there. They may influence each other by proximity, such as "all spaces bordering a river".
Spaces define what pieces can occupy them and how. Continuing with Carcassonne, we have the infinite grid of squares in which to potentially lay pieces, the spaces on the score track which are moved according to piece placement within the grid area, and hyper-space, where all other elements of the game reside.
In a game of Bohnanza, there is the hand space of each player further subdivided into five spaces. Cards enter in a track and progress through these spaces until they leave the hand area into the player's table space. A player's table space is divided into four areas: three for planting and a money pile. There is no special relationship between the spaces in one player's table area, or between each player's table area; they exist within hyper-space somewhere. In addition, there are two spaces for the deck and discard pile.
And so on.
In many games, the space is specifically divided into where you may or may not place your pieces, as well as how you may move them, such as Checkers. In some games, pieces travel between player's hand spaces without ever hitting the board area, such as traded resources in Settlers of Catan.
It is worth noting that any game with a scoring track is essentially a race game. All of the things you are doing with your other pieces are meant to help you race your pieces around the scoring track - they are the fuel for your movement, so to speak. Some games have the pieces interacting directly within the scoring track, such as Crokinole and Rebound. It would be interesting to see family games that did this, e.g. "if your piece lands on the scoring track, use that as your new score".
Pieces and Spaces
Pieces, board elements, and spaces are somewhat interchangeable. In a game where you lay tile to create the board, are the tiles pieces, spaces, or part of the board?
One way to look at pieces is that they transform the spaces they are on. A Monopoly space with a house on it is different from a Monopoly space without a house on it. The meaning of the space has changed, and therefore the space itself has temporarily changed. When the spaces are not dynamic, the pieces are used to execute the abilities of each space.
Dice and so on are simply pieces. They are generally thrown in a hyper-space area, and by virtue of their position affect how you may move other pieces. In a spaceless board, each player generally has their own hand space, with the board acting as a general hyper-space for pieces in transition, such as temporarily storing played cards.
Whether you play games or design them, it is useful to be able to picture the world created by the interacting elements of board, space, and pieces. Happy playing.