Monday, June 04, 2007

Puzzles - Games

Wanderings and Musings on Games, Puzzles and Teamwork

My small game group was lightly attended last night1 because three of us are in the last throes of planning a two day puzzle race. I'm not one of the three, though I have been conscripted to help with the actual event this weekend2. The last member of the group is wisely uninvolved.

Puzzles and games are closely linked. Some games are obviously based around puzzles, and at a certain point even puzzles morph into games. The SF bay area has a fairly large puzzle-loving community - and a fairly large boardgame community - but the two communities are largely separate. Sure, there are a couple people who cross over here and there, but as a rule the groups don't often mix.

It probably comes down to time. The puzzle races or puzzle nights that the die hard puzzlers enjoy suck up time just like a marathon session of 18xx. The upcoming race3 will take the whole weekend for the 15+ teams of players. Teams will be 4-6 puzzlers each, which brings me to what might be the biggest distinction between the communities of gamers and puzzlers - teamwork.

Puzzle races/nights4 are solved by teams of puzzlers working both cooperatively and independently. Some gamers cry foul when a game promotes cooperation or teamwork - but for a puzzle team, it's all part of the hobby. The closest games to a puzzle race would be cooperative games like Shadows over Camelot (without a traitor) or Reiner's Lord of the Rings5. But these games are often derided as being exercises in group think, or boring because the game is 'led' by one or two experienced players. This seems to be a fairly important distinction between the two communities. Puzzlers enjoy working cooperatively, while gamers have a tendency to want to work solo.

Within the teamwork of a puzzle team, or a game of LoTR, there is plenty of opportunity for individual choice and achievement, which keeps the game or puzzle experience fresh. Ultimately, a good team game should require discussion and group choice, but also enforce personal decisions. This seems to result in rules that feel clunky - like the "no showing anyone your cards" or "No mentioning cards specifically" rules that Shadows and LoTR have. I'm not sure how necessary these rules are, but I presume that playtesting must have shown some need for them7.

Obviously, puzzle races and cooperative games aren't for every gamer - just like Ticket to Ride isn't the best option for a dedicated crossword solver, but it's very interesting to see just how much, and how little, the two communities intermingle.


1 I subscribe to the theory that a small game group should number 5 people. Many many games are playable at five. When someone is missing then you can play the four player games and even two missing people provide you with an opportunity to play Logistico or On the Undergound. And on the odd occasion when a regular wants to bring someone new to the party, then there are a number of games that play six. All in all, five is a nice happy number.

2Pleading "small business owner" is surprisingly useful. I'd be more happy about its effectiveness if it wasn't so true.

3 Gratuitous information link here.

4 Also called treasure hunts.

5 Which we finally won again Sunday night after at least a two year streak of failures. Woo Hoo! 6

6 Three hobbits out of Five Alive at the end (the other two died only three spaces from Mount Doom). Friends and Foes used. Sauron at 15.

7 Yes, I know I'm presuming a lot.

Recently played: Canal Grande, Caylus, ChiZo Rising, Fjords, Lord of the Rings


Gerald McD said...

I enjoy puzzles and I enjoy games. I've subscribed to Games Magazine (which is more about puzzles than games) since its inception. I am not a die-hard puzzler, but do enjoy working some (a wide variety of types) now and then. Boardgames are more of a hobby for me, with family gaming and a local game group; puzzles serve me more as an occasional pasttime. I suppose that if I had joined a puzzle group, I would spend more time at puzzles than I do. My family enjoys some puzzles, as well as games. My wife and I often jointly tackle a puzzle or two in Games Magazine, and I have passed along some neat children's puzzles to my grandchildren, from the magazine.

I have often been puzzled (pun intended) by the lack of great cooperative boardgames. I enjoy very much playing LotR, but most of the family are not interested in it. There must be something culturally inherent in the attitude that games should be competitive, rather than cooperative. Too bad; I think its a game genre that is sadly underdeveloped and underappreciated.

Anonymous said...

There are games (e.g. chess, Monopoly) and other games (those discussed in Gone Gaming), each with different communities. The same is true with puzzles; the crossword-puzzlers aren't necessarily the National Puzzle League folks, who aren't the MIT Mystery Hunt crowd, etc. So it's difficult to make a general statement about "gamers" and "puzzlers". Here in Boston, there is a reasonable, though not huge, overlap of Eurogamers and puzzle-driven treasure hunters of my acquaintance.

It may be that each of these groups is a fairly obscure subculture that you generally don't stumble into unless you have an enthusiastic friend to introduce you and some local opportunities to participate. This may be more of a determining factor of who does what than any intrinsic attitude of the participants of these two groups.

Aaron_ said...

Dan - Yes there are definitely a ton of subgroups and factions within groups. But it does seem that there's some sort of fundamental divide between the type of person that is attracted primarily to puzzles (NPL, hunts, crosswords) and the person attracted primarily to games (chess, euros, wargames).

Some subgroups are obviously closer to each other. I've seen the most crossover between the hunt puzzlers and the eurogamers, but that isn't to say that it wouldn't be different in a different city.

Certainly you choose your hobbies partially by your friends. Your friends introduce you to a game, or a puzzle, and you get involved. But generally there are some common shared inclinations between friends, so a group of hobbyists will self-select friends who are predisposed to their hobby.

Smatt said...


This is mostly a shot in the dark, but I just have to ask. I created a simple puzzle game, and I'm wondering if you and your friends are short any interesting puzzles for your competition? I've mostly sat on this creation, but when I've shown it to the occasional person, they've been intrigued.

At any rate, good luck with the running of the competition!