Friday, March 30, 2007

The Head and the Heart

The other night at the Appalachian Gamers meeting, I played just two games: Beowulf: the Legend and Goa. I had never played Beowulf before, but I remembered Chris Farrell raving about Knizia’s game on his blog, and I had been wanting to try it. I had tried Goa just once a year or more ago, and I had only vague memories of it. It was time to give this well-regarded game another go.

It wasn’t until I was reflecting on the evening that I realized that the two games appealed to different parts of my anatomy: the head and the heart. Or maybe I should say, the head and the gut. I mean that although Beowulf required thought, it seemed to be primarily a suspenseful emotional experience. Goa, on the other hand, seemed to be a very cerebral game which touched my emotions little or not at all.

It’s easy to see why Goa appeals to the head rather than the heart. After the auction phase at the beginning of the turn, the game is multi-player solitaire. Also, players steadily advance toward victory; there are no major catastrophes in the game to inspire nervousness. And it is difficult to tell who is winning. Progress often seems to come in small incremental steps, and dramatic upswings of fortune seem to be almost as rare as disasters. All of these factors make Goa a game in which players constantly ponder how to advance their cause most efficiently—and feel little suspense about the process.

If there is a problem with the game, it is that the strategies seem so subtle that I’m not sure how to improve my game. Other than trying to be a bit more economical during the auction phase, I don’t know what I would do differently next time to improve my score. If Goa has limited appeal, it may be because the game’s very virtues make it more brainy than some gamers enjoy.

In contrast, Beowulf is a surprisingly suspenseful auction and hand-management game that could be mistaken for a skill-less luck-fest. The major luck element comes into play when players arrive at Risk spaces and draw the appropriate required cards or receive a minor injury token. This card-drawing Risk event can also take place during auctions when desperate players try a last-ditch maneuver to get the cards they need and stay in the auction.

In our game, most players proved to be surprisingly lucky most of the time, and remarkably lucky once in a while. In one memorable auction, player after player drew cards to stay in the auction, and time after time they were rewarded with the correct cards. This surreal experience generated lots of stunned laughter after creating tense suspense. These auctions can wear on a player’s nerves because the losers may suffer severe penalties even as the winners reap rich rewards.

It seems to me that lots of games appeal primarily to either the head or the heart. In many cases this can be an over-simplification, of course, but it can also be a useful tool when deciding what kind of game will appeal to certain players. If you notice that a particular player avoids abstract cerebral games, you might try offering an emotion-laden game and seeing if that will appeal.

Some games that I think of as primarily cerebral are Puerto Rico, Caylus, Reef Encounter, Silk Road, Taj Mahal, Die Macher, and Power Grid.

Some games that I think of as offering more adventure, suspense, and emotion than strategy are Lord of the Rings, War of the Ring, Descent, Arkham Horror, Fury of Dracula, Railroad Tycoon, Ticket to Ride, Around the World in 80 Days, and Shadows over Camelot.

It is possible for a game to move from one category to another. When I first started playing War of the Ring and Railroad Tycoon, they were strategy games that required a lot of thought. But lots of experience with these games has reduced the difficulty in decision-making because the best move now often seems obvious (whether the seemingly-best move really is the best is another matter; it may be that familiarity breeds over-confidence). Once familiarity with a game makes decision-making seem easy, the experience of playing the game for me is often less about the strategy and more about the fun of the journey.

Some games are in transition for me. I’ve played Union Pacific enough to have a good grasp of the game, but I regularly lose when playing against the other Appalachian Gamers. Maybe if I played Union Pacific another dozen times or so it would seem more emotional than cerebral. But right now, for me, it straddles the categories.

There’s no reason you have to dissect your emotional/intellectual experience of playing games. But doing so can yield surprising results. If someone asked me if I enjoyed brainy games more than emotional ones, I probably would have answered with an energetic yes. But if I ask myself which game I enjoyed more, Goa or Beowulf, the answer is not so clear. Thank goodness there is time enough in most gaming evenings for both types of games.


Fraser said...

I still think the highlight of playing Beowulf for me so far was having Mr Skeletor reading out each and every encounter from the rules to add theme, as he put it:-)

It certainly added humour to the game!

Jim said...

Good article. I tend to think of games as "analytical" (mainly having intellectual fun) or "social" (mainly having social fun and interaction). As you say, some games are definitely in one camp or the other, or can be different based on your experience of the game.

I've often wondered about all the analysis some Eurogames require. A high level of analysis doesnt seem that compatible with a multiplayer group format, where there is much more chaos than in 2-player games, and where there is more of an expectation of sociality. Many of the analytical multiplayer games seem too long unless everyone is quiet, thinking about their turn in advance. Seems odd for a group activity, where you tend to want to talk to other people...