Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Inside and Outside the Game Experience

This article is sort of a followup to this. You can also refer to Adam Conus's The Trading Game Experience: Part 1 for another description of the game experience.


I have once again started creating an RPG world; my game group consists of a number of people from diverse backgrounds. Some of them have RPG experience and, like me, quit playing after 3e DnD (another discussion). Some of them never played an RPG and are interested in knowing what it's all about. It's just another type of game, right?

Well, no.

We won't be playing our first game for another two weeks, at least. Yet for the next several weeks, we will be "playing the game". We're reading rules, designing characters and the campaign. Discussing. Planning. And so on.

DnD, and RPGs in general, provides not only a game but an entire game experience. Maybe it's the complexity of the rules, which requires study by the game players to get the full experience. You might be tempted to say that it's a deficiency that so much has to be built before you can start playing; I don't think so. You may as well say that C++ is deficient because so much has to be programmed before you get an application.

This game system, game preparation, game immersion, what have you, creates passionate gamers. The "game" is not something you take out of the box, play, and put away. It is a little world that creeps into your own world, the way that sports teams become important to you.

It's the same way that a hobby becomes important to you. You can garden. Or you can immerse yourself in gardening, learn about soil and acidity, meet other gardeners, and learn about mail-order delivery. The hobby becomes part of you, even when you are not directly involved in it.


Despite DW's ranting, Magic and CCGs hold the same allure. It is not the preconstructed decks that make the hobby. It is the deckbuilding and research that adds so much to the game. Now my own Magic experience is limited to the few thousand cards I and my friends own. When we want to play Magic, we grab some cards, draft, build decks, and play. That is nowhere near the immersion you get from following pro-tours, but even that experience is more than a typical board game. Drafting. Deck-building.


RPGs and CCGs are game experiences because they are so complex and allow so much personal preparation. But note that another game with a complete game experience is Chess. Little old boring always-starts-the-same-way Chess (not talking here about Chess960).

Someone once commented (can't find it!) that coming into a game of chess was very similar to coming into a game of Magic: each player brings a "deck of strategies". You play this opening, I counter with that. You cast this instant, I cast this creature. You play an enchantment. I throw a fireball.

I guess if you sit down to game of chess without this sort of preparation, you could still enjoy the game, but you miss out on a grand experience. There is something nice about that experience. There is also something nice about playing without that experience.

(Let's not get into the old "jedi vs ewoks" debate again, however. Let us just assume that both types are valid. In fact, let us assume that both types are entirely different games. Casual chess vs Serious chess. Casual PR vs serious PR. Entirely different games.)

Other board games

The same experience can be found in some board and card games, such as Scrabble (memorize those word lists!), Bridge (iron out that bidding convention!), and so on.

Did you ever hear anyone talk about Puerto Rico that way? It takes five to ten minutes to set up a Puerto Rico game, but I've never heard anyone call that quality game time. "Oh, I've been thinking about the different ways we could set up the colonists. I tried it a few hundred times in a practice run, but I wasn't so happy, so I swapped out a few brown ones and put in a few green ones. Want to run it through a few times tonight?"

Even when I play, and I play by drawing or arranging buildings from a pool of 120 different buildings, I never experience the pre or post PR game as quality game time. Maybe, maybe, we might discuss a certain move in round 12 that threw the game, but that's as far as it goes. Puerto Rico is not a game experience. (I still love it.)

I imagine that Alex and Jim got a bit of that experience while they were working on their PR strategy guides, but thereafter it must have waned.

What does it take to get that rich experience in a board game?

- An incredibly diverse type of playing experience each time it is played. For RPGs you have an infinite worldspace. For CCGs, you have thousands of card combinations. For chess, your worldspace and pieces are limited, but the game is sufficiently balanced and sufficiently analyzable that you can find thousands of valid stylistic play patterns.

- Personal preparation is inherent to the game. Preparing a common set of buildings in Puerto Rico is not personal preparation. If there were several hundred buildings, and each player brought to the game those buildings he or she would be allowed to build during the game, you might have a game experience.

- It doesn't hurt to have open source components, so that people can spend their time building and collecting beautiful components (such as chessboards).

- A system that encourages contributions from people to enhance the game also helps. For RPGs, this means that anyone can create new adventures, character classes, spells, and so on. Wizards of the Coast is the only one who can create cards to their game, but the deck creation and combinations are open source.


Since most board games don't seem to have this "game experience", people in the board game world have created their own experience by collecting multiple games. Storing games, buying games, trading games, comparing games. Game play order at a game club is like playing with a deck of cards: "I'll play Puerto Rico, and then Age of Steam, then I'll hit you with San Juan." "Oh yeah? Well, I counter your San Juan with my Alhambra, and cast Torres on your butt! Eat hot action points, flyboy!"

Our game experience is blogging, reading, and so on about a whole bunch of games, instead of about just one game.

I think this is a cop-out. I think it points to something lacking in the games themselves. If each one of these games can't hold our attention long enough to create an obsession, is it really that good? Yeah, if I weighed fifty of these games versus a CCG, I would pick the games. But if you had to weigh only ONE game vs a CCG, which would you choose?



Joe Steadman said...

What about ASL? :-)

Yehuda said...

I was actually thinking about that. I guess generic wargamers have to answer the same questions that Eurogamers do, but ASL is a very rich experience.

I suppose the "preparation" experience of ASL is memorizing the damn rulebooks.


Coldfoot said...

I, for one, find the game experience to be learning a new game, not mastering the old one.

markmist said...

I think the great thing about Boardgames is that you don't need to be obsessed with them and can start, play, and finish a game in one sitting (no preparation required).

There are some hybrid (expandable) boardgames out there that have attempted to combine the best elements of customization within the framework of a board (look at Duel of Ages, Dungeon Twister, Runebound and Navia Dratp for example).

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. You hit the nail on the head about chess, the more you know the better the experience you have. I have felt that many times.

ASL has a lot more replayability than other games, but it falls into the same problem of eventually getting stale. After years of non-stop Squad Leader + all expansions, I have no real desire to play anymore.

I am like Coldfoot, the experience is trying a lot of new games and dragging out the best ones from time to time.

Steve Bernhardt

DWTripp said...

An interesting perspective. I'm in the camp that says CCG's and RPG's get stale over time... in part because of the very things you mention required to play the games.

I burnt out on RPG's by 1986 and CCG's by 1997 and still can't muster enough enthusiasm to return to either genre. Too much prep time, too much work, too many variables in terms of multiple players having the time or a competitive collection or in clarifying and agreeing on the exact rules.

Board games, oddly enough, tap a renewable interest resource in me. Not to mention the learning curve overall is less, the cost is typically less (at least in terms of the cost of time) and the physical and time commitments needed are easier.

Since you mentioned by CCG Rant, perhaps it's time for me to do an RPG rant?

Fraser said...

I would say that the boardgame experience is during the game, at least for the good games, and that could be good because the game is good or good because what happened during the game with the other players made it a good experience.

Sometimes at the end of a game I still get that buzz of "Wow that was a great game" for either of the reasons above. It could be old, it could be new.

RPGs, especially long ones are just an experience themselves (he says looking forward to his next Call of Cthulhu session in a campaign that has been running off and on for two decades).

gamesgrandpa said...

I think this article will take some time to digest. I see your point, and I have never engaged in the game experience you describe. But, it's not important to me.

I'll give some thought to this and maybe write and post something in reply.

Nice job!

Craig said...

I'll chime in with 18xx as a class of board games that creates a rich and deep experience. The number of hours I have spent playing 18xx games dwarfs the number of hours spent playing any other boardgame. If I narrow the field, I could chose one or two 18xx games that at one point garnered a huge percentage (90%+) of my overall game playing time.

This is no longer the case and hasn't been for a couple of years, but I still find playing an 18xx game to capture my interest in a way that other games do not.