Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Guest Speaker

Friday I was contemplating what I could write about this week when I came upon a post on BGG by Jason Little (ynnen) looking for something to occupy his mind over the weekend. I decided to ask him if he’d like to write something for Gone Gaming and lucky for all of you, he said yes, otherwise you might be sitting here reading my session report on Litter Box Maintenance. Please give a hearty Gone Gaming greeting to the King of Geeklists, Jason Little.

Games that Tamper with the Space-Time Continuum
Jay Little/ynnen

Boardgaming is an engaging, spirited hobby that exercises a player’s creativity, decision making prowess, sportsmanship and a variety of other attributes. But what many people fail to realize that gaming has significant scientific impact, as well – the ability to warp time and space.

A common phrase heard in our household is “it’s what o’clock?” This is usually said in outright shock as I look at the clock after a long night of gaming or when my wife asks if I was ever planning on coming to bed when I’m sucked into juggling some MMORPG, play-by-web or online boardgaming at BrettSpielWelt.

I swear it had to be 11 or 11:30 p.m. at the latest. How on earth did 2 a.m. get here?

The Space-Time Continuum is a fragile and fickle thing, especially with regards to gaming. Some games have a predictable effect on the Space Time Continuum, while others have a wildly variable impact. There’s just something about games, though, that has the potential to either make time grind to a complete halt (not a good thing) or the exciting opposite, where time warps past and the hours melt away like minutes.

Games create this positive Time Warp by developing a setting where I can easily immerse myself in the gameplay. This seems more likely to happen with games featuring strong thematic elements, a wide variety of turn options or results that unfold in interesting game narrative. Even if such a game has a fair amount of downtime between player turns, I find myself engrossed in my opponents’ turns almost as much as my own.

Then there are those rare gems, those stellar games which create maximum time warpage by incorporating several of these elements – greatly impacting the Space Time Continuum.

Thematic Time Warp: A strong theme, especially fantasy or science fiction for me, can help a game transcend its mechanics and limitations to become a truly immersive experience, quickly compressing time. Component quality, art and other aesthetic touches can add to this vibe. Feeling that your actions are tied somehow to the theme can go a long way to creating a time-sliding sense of immersion – not necessarily as a simulation, but where you can suspend your disbelief and imagine “what would I do in their shoes?” regarding the gameplay. Sometimes we also ham it up and get into character, adopting bad accents or letting theme influence our decision over strategy.

The chaos and simplicity of something like Talisman doesn’t prevent the game from sucking me in as I revel in the great artwork and fantasy theme evoked by the components. I’ve wasted entire days playing Talisman before, where I’d swear only a few hours had gone by before realizing that the sun had already set. I’ve got a powerful Troll decked out with armor and a sword – you bet I’m going to go fight that Ogre in the mountains rather than slink off to the forest.

Other games that provide this level of Thematic Time Warp for me include Organized Crime, Blood Bowl, Cosmic Encounter and Monsters Menace America.

Strategic Option Time Warp: Having a lot of options can help time zip by as you reel off the myriad possibilities in your mind. But when it’s not your turn, this may end up bringing time to a standstill as you wait for your opponents to go. This is where the Space Time Continuum shows how fragile it can be. So a delicate balance is needed. I think a lot of two player games benefit most from this, where I can still reasonably plan out and enjoy the immersion of decision making while my opponent makes his move – but more players may introduce enough chaos where that sort of planning is impractical, or simply adds so much time between turns that I lose focus.

This is the type of immersion that determines whether or not an abstract game (by my definition ineligible for thematic immersion) appeals to me. I can really get into a game of Abalone or Zertz. They provide a good mix of compelling and open-ended decision making – each decision with its own forking paths of possible outcomes. At the same time, I’m still engaged during my opponent’s turn, either by hoping they overlook a certain move or starting to create contingency plans for the variety of options he has to choose from.

While this time warping may not have an appreciable effect after just a single play, a good abstract will often call for a quick rematch or best 2-of-3 series – after which, time easily warped to a much later point than I would have imagined possible.

Other games that provide this level of Strategic Option Time Warp for me include Samurai, El Grande, Santiago and Caylus.

Gameplay Narrative Time Warp: The most immersive quality to me is a game that tells an interesting story as the game goes by. These are the sorts of games that keep me the most engaged during an opponent’s turn or hold my attention even after I’ve been eliminated from contention. This is the stuff of The Great Session Report. After a game with a strong narrative, I feel like I’ve just read part of a good book or an episode of a TV show.

Despite its length, Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition keeps me on the edge of my seat as time tumbles past. I can’t wait to see if my opponents start their own border disputes, if certain stretches of space will be explored, or what sort of impact the political system will have on this sort of game. These are the games you tell stories about when you and your gaming buddies get back together. “Remember that game when the Xxcha decided to go military and almost took over Mecatol Rex before the Hacan recovered and beat ‘em back? Man that was great!”

Other games that provide this level of Gameplay Narrative Time Warp for me include Mall of Horror, Hammer of the Scots, Wallenstein and Minion Hunter.

Thanks to (grandslam) over at BGG for bringing up this topic in the first place – which quickly led to a few sleepless nights thinking it over.


Jason Little said...

Thanks for the invite, Mary -- I was glad to write it... It's just awkward writing something that's not in GeekList format! :)

I had thought to include some leading questions at the end to hopefully solicit more feedback, as I usually do in my GeekLists, but felt it was dragging on a bit long. So here are the questions I shoulda' coulda' included:

- What other game qualities impact the Space Time Continuum for you?
- Which games compress time the most and just zip by?
- What's your best time-compression related gaming anecdote?

ekted said...

Party Time Warp.

Really good party games with the right group in the right mood. You play over and over until people start falling asleep at 5am.

Melissa said...

Great article, Jason.

I still remember the day I bought my first PC. It was 1990, and the only software I had to install was SimCity. Next thing I knew, it was getting light outside.

Fraser said...

Computer games are the real killer for me in this respect. Just one more turn... I'll just capture that city...

I remember correctly Bard's Tale, Deuteros and Civilization - Sid Meir PC game I and II for sure have all had that "Oh look at that, the sun has come up" experience that Melissa was talking about for me.

Boardgame wise I have done the same with Diplomacy.

Other games with Space-Time Warps would include Caylus, Die Macher and Civilization.

Research conducted in my youth proved that many pinball machines have a warp in the Space-Time Continuum about 10 cm (or 4") above the left hand flipper. The ball heads into that zone and then is just out down the guts without having to traverse the physical space inbetween!