Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Do You Like Brussel Sprouts?

I think Bohnanza is a kid's game. So do most of the players in my gaming group. Greg Schloesser doesn't agree. In fact, neither do most of the people not in my gaming group. But let's not talk about Bohnanza.

Thinking about my game group's Bohnanza preference sparked a whole lot of other observations about my game group:

* Everyone who likes Puerto Rico in my gaming group likes playing with my expansion buildings. In fact, we almost never play without them. Yet just about no one else around the world has picked these up (with a few exceptions here and there).

* Games in my gaming group often take 1.5 times the maximum length on the box. Games in many other gaming groups take about the minimum time on the box.

* None of us liked Citadels. Almost every other group everywhere likes Citadels, and some groups consider it one of their absolute top games.

What is going on here? Are we just strange?

I don't think so. I'm willing to bet that just about every group of players has several unique characteristics about it that distinguishes it from other game groups.

Why?

One of the basic questions we hear all the time is, "Why do people like games?"

There are a number of articles that try to answer this question. These articles group players into categories of reasons, such as: self-mastery, escapism, socializing, roleplaying, competition, and so on. People are then grouped into one or more of these categories. Other articles tend to lump players according to their culture, e.g. the Spanish like to play this, or Mexican women in the 18th century played games like that.

These answers are too simplistic because the question is too simplistic. Think about what games you like, why you like these games, and how you tend to play in a certain way.

The answers are not really straightforward. That's because the games you like now are probably different than the games you liked when you were 2, 5, or 13. Not only that, but the reasons that you like games changes over time, too. In fact, what games you like and why you want to play a certain game can change from one minute to the next. It can depend on your mood, what you just ate, what you just played, and who you are with. How can you say why you like games, when the answer today is going to be different tomorrow?

Here is a better question: what factors induce people to want to play a particular game at a particular time?

Instead of, "Why do some players play slowly (analysis paralysis)?", try, "What factors contribute to a person playing slowly?"

Similarly: What factors contribute to people giving more or less advice during a game? What factors would result in a person being more or less likely to enjoy a certain style of game?

In other words, the questions must be defined as a complex interaction of contributing factors. Because no person "does or does not" like a wargame. Each person chooses to play or not to play the game at any particular moment. Each person derives more or less enjoyment from a particular game based on what has happened to them, what is happening to them, how they feel, and who they are with at a particular time.

Without quoting any real data, I would guess that a whole lot of the factors that directly determine what games you like and how you play are cultural. Games and play styles tend to bunch up around certain cultures.

For instance, players in a particular age group tend to enjoy certain games more than others. Player of a certain sex tend to enjoy certain games more than others. And so on with regards to family, game group, city, country, year, decade, century, civilization, social status, and even economic status. Of course, there are games that transcend some of these groups, some more and some less. But I bet that the reasons that people in each subgroup enjoy a particular game, even the same game, and even how they play that game, tend to be different.

Where does an individual's preferences come in? There are plenty of games in our game group that one person likes, while everyone else hates it, and vice versa. I'm sure the same is true with every group. Without discounting the reasons listed in those articles, I would guess that some combination of the adaptive and rebellious tendencies within a person at any particular time shape that person's play style or likes and dislikes for certain games.

When a person adopts an adaptive personality, they want to fit in to the group in which they identify, and will tend to like or dislike the game for the same reasons that others in that group like or dislike it.

As an example, when we were playing Citadels, one person said that they thought the game was unengaging, and it snowballed from there. Other people who were playing then noticed the same problem. The game was played with little enthusiasm and remarks about how problematic it was.

Possibly, if one of the people who ended up disliking the game had instead been playing with a group that already liked the game, that person might have ended up liking it. The group would have been playing more enthusiastically, laughing, getting involved, and the new person may have had a great time.

The flip side is that when a person adopts a rebellious personality, they will stand out from their group's opinions. If you are in a mood where you balk at the idea of being influenced by others as they all march to a certain tune, you may retain a presence of mind to judge the game by yourself. Maybe you will imagine what the game could be like if played with other players with sensibilities more similar to your own. Of course, there is a social danger in being rebellious, in that you will find yourself just slightly alienated from your current group ... unless you can drag some other rebellious people with you.

Each person not only meshes both aspects of these tendencies, but also flips between them depending on the circumstances. I'm sure that many times you weren't in the right mood for a particular game. Or something about the way someone taught the game bugged you. Or you clicked with it, but didn't know why. Or had a great time playing a silly game. Many of you have played a game that you loved the first time and then hated, or hated and then loved. Or hated with a certain group but then loved with others.

So is it cultural taste that makes you like or hate blind bidding, or personal taste? Obviously, it is some mixture of both. I think that the cultural and environmental influence is strong, although we still maintain our own personal likes and dislikes.

It is not a coincidence that a large number of people in one culture will like violent games of confrontation while a large number in another culture won't. The same for play styles, such as slow, confrontational, or lots of table talk, and the same for games with adult themes, gambling, certain types of sports, and so on. Yet, within that culture, an individual's particular taste will be unique.

As a weird metaphor, the model for cultural bias in determining a play style or predisposition to liking a style of game seems to me to be a lot like the old double-slit light experiment. When you let light photons through a screen with two slits one at a time, each one appears to hit a second screen in a seemingly random location, apparently uninfluenced by any other photon. Yet, as the photons continue to accumulate, you see patterns of waves start to take shape. Apparently photons are a lot more like people than we realized.

Of course, it may be that what looks like patterns to me is only the result of stereotyping. Research needs to be done.

I would have thought that a single game group is too small a sampling to really produce a style of game likes or dislikes or play style; but then how do you explain one game group where they all give advice freely and another where table-talk isn't allowed? Or why some groups think that Puerto Rico is always won by the first player who takes Hospice?

I think that, ultimately, our adaptive personality takes precedence over our rebelliousness.

Yehuda

11 comments:

huzonfirst said...

Good article, Yehuda--I agree with just about everything you say. Gaming styles and preferences are almost certainly a product of both individual preferences and group dynamics. Sometimes one effect is stronger than another. For example, I've never liked blind bidding games and I continue not to like them, despite the fact that many members of my group either tolerate or actively enjoy the mechanic. But it's also true that my feelings about table talk are strongly a product of the way my group handles it. All this means that there's no right or wrong way to play a game. That, in fact, is one of the great strengths of games: that there can be so many types of experiences in one box, depending on how the group prefers to play it.

Still, there ARE some absolutes in life. Brussel sprouts are bad. And Bohnanza is decidedly NOT a kid's game!

Dwayne "aka okiedokie" said...

Great article. This past Saturday I was heading out for the March meeting of SuperFantasticGamingHour and was trying to decide what games to take. My Lovely Wife said "take your favorite game".

I replied, "They are all my favorite game when I am playing them & depending on who I'm with."

I think the only games I haven't enjoyed are Scene It? (bad concept of moving on the board) and Ricochet Robot (but my 1st & only play was at 01:30 and I was tired)

Hope to see you at BGG.con, heard your games were a hit.

gamesgrandpa said...

"And Bohnanza is decidedly NOT a kid's game!" -- huzonfirst

I would modify that comment to read "NOT ONLY a kid's game." My young grandchildren (now 8 and 10) have been playing Bohnanza a couple of years and have beaten five adults at it. It definitely IS a kid's game, an adult's game, and a multi-generational game.

Sorry for the digression, Yehuda, but I just couldn't pass on the opportunity to talk about Bohnanza, one of my family's favorite games. As I have mentioned to you in the past, Bohnanza is a great example of a game that "clicks" with certain people and certain groups, but not with others. Your discussion of why/when we like or dislike games is right on the mark.

Ryan Walberg said...

Great article.

I also think Bohnanza is trivial and mechanic, and I am sick of Citadels.

I had a game group turned off of Traders of Genoa because of one member who overanalyzed everything and turned the game sour for everyone. I doubt I can get them to try it again.

BilboAtBagEnd said...

Brussel sprouts are only bad when you overcook them. Unfortunately, most people only know how to overcook them. It's a lot like how broccoli is overcooked in many places, leading to a similar revulsion for it. Some veggies just don't like to be boiled (and even over-steaming is a problem).

A quick braise recipe:

http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article.php?id=136

There's definitely an analogy here to game likes/dislikes and environment.

Anonymous said...

> Without discounting the
> reasons listed in those articles, I
> would guess that some combination of
> the adaptive and rebellious
> tendencies within a person at any
> particular time shape that person's
> play style or likes and dislikes
>for certain games.

Both your reactive and adaptive modes are in fact reactive, simply of opposite sign. Additionally they ignore the simple discorrelative third trait of those who ignore the views and patterns of the other gamers when forming their own view. They might agree, they might disagree, they might end up at some third place, but those correlations are incidental not causal. It is easy to argue that such a disassociative individual is definitionally impossible (we are the product of our environments and our environments are inherently social etc), but there are certainly a great many people who conciously strive to emulate and attain that ideal, and some number of them are game players.

> When a person adopts an adaptive
> personality, they want to fit in to
> the group in which they
> identify, and will tend to like
> or dislike the game for the same
> reasons that others in that
> group like or dislike it.

And the third party is a wild card.

> Of course, there is a social danger
> in being rebellious, in that
> you will find yourself just
> slightly alienated from your
> current group ... unless you can drag
> some other rebellious people
> with you.

And the third type will either not notice or will consider that this loss is acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of the ideal.

> I would have thought that a
> single game group is too small a
> sampling to really produce a
> style of game likes or dislikes
> or play style; but then how do you
> explain one game group where they
> all give advice freely and another
> where table-talk isn't allowed? Or
> why some groups think that Puerto
> Rico is always won by the first
> player who takes Hospice?

The efficiency of socially normative forces in normalising social groups is a very well studied area. This really can't be a surprise.

Yehuda said...

huzonfirst: Thanks.

dwayne: Oh, I won't be making it to BGG.con unless somoene wants to sponsor me! The only reason I made it to the last one was a) I really needed a vacation, b) I was demonstrating my game to some publishers, c) I had some friends to stay with in Dallas who won't be there next year.

People enjoyed my game, but noone has picked it up to publish, and I haven't heard it casually mentioned in any session reports by those who have copies of the mock-ups, so it can't be all that popular (I guess that it would qualify as good, but not great).

Bilbo: Thanks for the recipe. Maybe I will try them again, if I can find them in Israel.

Anon: You slightly misread what I wrote, which is was actually pretty similar to what you are saying. I didn't say "reactive and adaptive", I said "adpative and rebellious". My "rebellious" is pretty similar to your "disassociative", although not entirely.

As far as it being a surprise, I guess it is to someone who thinks about it for the first time. It just seemed strange to me that a group of random people at one game group all developed the same taste until I thought about why that might be.

Yehuda

Anonymous said...

> I also think Bohnanza is trivial and mechanic

In some ways Bohnanza is a simple mutating probability game (how many of N card are left in the deck so what is my probability of being able to score it when?) married to a positive sum trading game (classic So Long Sucker game theory) with a small dash of card counting thrown in. Certainly not the most complex game ever but I'm not so sure about "trivial".

Do you consider So Long Sucker to be a trivial and mechanical game?

huzonfirst said...

"I would modify that comment to read 'NOT ONLY a kid's game'." -- gamesgrandpa

I agree, GG. Bohnanza is a great family game and most kids really enjoy it. I've had great games with mixed groups and with all-adult groups. Either way, it isn't just for kids (sorry, Yehuda, it looks like you're outvoted on this one).

Henry rhombus said...

In some ways Bohnanza is a simple mutating probability game ... married to a positive sum trading game ... with a small dash of card counting thrown in.

Yeah, that description will really draw in interested parties. I can't think of a more unappealing way to describe Bohnanza.

Anonymous said...

> Yeah, that description will
> really draw in interested parties.
> I can't think of a more unappealing way
> to describe Bohnanza.

All games are abstract. Themes are just arbitrarily flavoured viewpoints on an abstract game.