A crunchy game. A crunchy rulebook. A crunchy character.
Three and a Half Hypotheses
While looking up the origin of this word I stumbled upon three main hypotheses — almost four. Here they are, in reverse order of credibility, based on frequency and spread of usage.
Let’s start with the weakest and most literal hypothesis. Crunch has been used as a noun in general language since the early 1900s to mean challenge, crisis, a defining moment. In that sense a crunchy board game would be one where the players have to take crucial, far-reaching decisions under pressure. That would encompass most wargames, and some real-time games or even race games as well. The thing is, it’s a very specific meaning that excludes too many actual usage cases to deserve more than a mention here. So there.
The Peanut Butter Hypothesis
There is some evidence that crunchy is used to qualify tabletop games as it does peanut butter. So in that sense a crunchy game is a game having lots of small rules that can be couter-intuitive, bordering arbitrary, giving it a certain roughness. But since the opposite of crunchy peanut butter is smooth peanut butter, crunchiness, in a game, often sounds like a less desirable feature, even a flaw. Meaning that a game is not well-rounded and doesn’t succeed at delivering, well, a smooth game experience. Which doesn’t match main current usage.
The Punch Card Hypothesis
We’re getting closer with this one. The expression number crunching appeared in the mid-1960s, and most likely comes from early computers using punch cards. The mechanical processing and punching of those cards made a crunching sound, something like this. So processing lots of data on such machines was said to do data or number crunching. From there the expression came to be used to describe any task or process involving many complex calculations.
So this analogy implies that a crunchy game is one where players perform lots of number crunching, of difficult calculations. While it is quite possible that crunchy has its origins in number crunching, its meaning has strayed from that original expression. And as we’ll see below, there are more established terms to describe games that involve lots of calculations. Moreover, crunchy, without fluffy, is only half of the analogy — which leads us to our last source.
The Pastry Hypothesis
So far, and by far, the most likely hypothesis I’ve found to explain why we call a game crunchy is an analogy based on pastries.
Role-playing games descend from miniature wargames and have been around since the 1970s. They typically come with very few components and hold, for the most part, in one or several substantial books.
Those detailed manuals contain documentation pertaining to every aspect of the game. Due to the narrative nature of RPGs, it amounts to at least as much background content describing the universe in which the game takes place, than actual rules and data explaining how the game works. Hence the gamers’ need to be able to distinguish, in those rather dense tomes, the essential, functional sections from the contextual, descriptive ones.
So role players came up with two terms that do just that. Maybe first by reference to number crunching they got crunch to designate the “system” part of the rules. Then, by analogy with many popular pastries that are made of two distinct layers (like marshmallow and Graham crackers s’mores), they called fluff the other part, the descriptions of the game’s universe.
Therefore crunchy games have rules that are extensive and encompassing enough to support fine-grained simulations. That’s why they are sometimes called low-trust games: their numerous and detailed charts, statistics or procedures — the crunch — provide for most emerging situations and don’t leave much to be determined by the Game Master. This is the opposite of high-trust games, in which many crucial decisions are left to the discretion and judgment of the GM. As a consequence, high-crunch games are sometimes derisively called railroad storytelling, or grocery list play.
Crunchy Board Games
Successful miniature fantasy adventure and wargame series that also come with substantial documentation, like Warhammer (1983) or Malifaux (De Voor, 2009), seem to have helped the term crunchy migrate from RPGs to mainstream tabletop gaming. Where it definitely still has something to do with the level of detail of a (mostly simulation-based) game and its overall rule burden.
Because its association with number crunching and crunchy peanut butter makes usage of crunchy in board gaming a little fuzzier than in role-playing, let’s make an attempt at a few final distinctions.
Eurogames. Can Eurogames be crunchy? Well, some thematic ones are. Mechanical aspects are more present in a crunchy game, but generally in order to serve a strong theme or detailed simulations. Not the forte of Eurogames by any means, which also tend to have more streamlined rule sets.Terms like procedural or dry are more commonly used to refer to Eurogames having a specially weak theme or that are overly mechanical.
Wargames. Some wargames, like Advanced Squad Leader (Greenwood, 1985), come with extremely detailed rulebooks. As John Foley puts it, “the Advanced Squad Leader rulebook is famously vast and comprehensive. The reason for this is simple: everything you can possibly attempt is presented in great detail” (Zones of Control, Harrigan and Kirschenbaum, p. 128). Even if that could certainly be described as crunchy, the term doesn’t appear to be used in wargaming whatsoever. Possibly because there is not as much fluff, in historical as in fantasy gaming, to oppose it to.
Deep games. A game can be crunchy without being deep. Being simulation-oriented, detailed or rule-heavy doesn’t equate with being meaty or requiring lots of deep thinking. Many deep, thinky games like chess and go have a deceivingly light rule set.
Heavy games. It is likely that heavy games will have lots of rules. And crunchy is sometimes used as a synonym to heavy. But here again, a game’s weight has more to do with its complexity, playing time or learning curve than with detailed storytelling and simulation.
Mathy games. Crunchy will probably remain associated with number crunching and be used for referring to calculation-intensive board games. Yet other terms are more commonly used for such games, like mathy and computational.
How do you use crunchy to describe your games?
References and Further Browsing
- A definition of Crunchy by 1d4chan
- What does it mean to say that a game is ‘crunchy’?, on Boardgamegeek
- Thematic & Crunchy Euros, on Boardgamegeek
- Where did the term crunchy start in the board game world?, on Boardgamegeek
- Special language usage in RPG discussions?
- Is crunchy really role playing for you?, on Boardgamegeek
- Why do people like crunchy games?, on Reddit
- Rules-lite but crunchy RPG suggestions?, on Boardgamegeek