Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The Game Hordes

A while ago Jeremy Avery posted an article about people who learn games too well, thereby making the playing experience uninteresting for those who don't. He was mostly talking about the people who act sniffy and snobbish about it, as opposed to the actual idea of people learning to play games and getting better at them. Mostly he was saying that he preferred playing a thousand different games once, rather than spending time getting good at only a few games.

This seems to be an idea rife within our community: that we are a group of people who enjoy playing many different games, rather than focusing on one game, or getting better at the games we play. That it is not enjoyable to play with people who play better than we do.

I also once wrote a blog entry about it being enjoyable to rotate games. I must have forgotten this entry when I later wrote a different entry in which I found something wrong with this attitude; an entry that I subsequently deleted for being paternalistic, although not before some people received it via RSS feed, undoubtedly.

Well, I still find something wrong with this attitude; and I'm still paternalistic about it.

1. 90% of Everything is Crap - Theodore Sturgeon

Lots of people say that they got out of Magic because they were constantly buying new cards, spending a lot of time collecting the whole sets, always buying the new stuff, etc... Well, hello? Isn't this what you're doing with board games? Isn't buying every new board game the same as buying every new Magic card? Isn't playing game after game looking at the new mechanics and artwork the same as playing deck after deck looking at the new mechanics and artwork?

Are you on board game crack, just like you used to be on Magic crack?

People say that too many games come out each year. I suppose you might feel that if you think that you personally have to go out and buy every one of them. But you don't.

Do you go see every movie that comes out because you just have to see every movie? 90% of all movies are crap, because, well, 90% of everything is crap. Well, so are 90% of all board games, including at least 70% of those 700 board games you've bought.

Let Rick and Tom and the rest of the game reviewers buy and play all of these games. That's what game reviewers do, just like movie reviewers. Movie reviewers are paid to sit through 300 movies. Game reviewers, unfortunately, are not yet paid to do this (they should be!), but lord almighty, why inflict it upon yourself unless that's really what you want to do? Kudos to them - the rest of us are grateful. If they didn't do it, someone else would have to do it. I suspect that their enjoyment comes more from providing a valuable service to the gaming world than in enjoying every one of those games.

The rest of us have to face the truth: we make critical decisions about the movies we watch. You can't watch 300 new movies a year, unless you really like to waste your time. Don't play 300 different board games. 270 of them are a waste of your time. Spend your time better, more valuably. Let the reviewers make their judgments and then buy only 30 games. You may still get some misses, but the risk is the same as going only to the four star movies.

So my first problem with playing game after game is: you are going to play a lot of bad games.

2. Why we Play Games

For me, a major point of the game is the ability to get better and have that reflected in the game.

This is something you don't get when you play game after game each night. The first time you play a game, even a game without any luck elements, is like playing a party game. Anyone can win.

Games of chance and party games - they have their place. The adult U.S. population playing typical Hasbro games knows nothing but party games. Monopoly, Life, Sorry, Trivial Pursuit, etc. are party games. You could also call them gambling games. Games where, no matter how often you have played, anyone can win at any time, and where the chief enjoyment is waiting to see who wins by luck or by accident.

For me, a game requires something more substantial from the person playing it. I demand of a game that it demand something from me in return. I feel the same about my literature, my movies, and every other use of my time. Yeah, everyone needs to relax and everyone needs to sleep. But is that really what you want to fill your entire life with? Is that the way you want your children to spend their time? Is that all there is to games? Would you rather read Archie comics all day or read literature that transforms you? Would you consistently rather watch dumb TV shows or something equally enjoyable but with content that makes you think? Do you want to play the game equivalent of candy, or a game that challenges you to grow?

Of course, there is another extreme end to this spectrum: games that are lifestyles. You know, the games that people devote their whole lives to, such as Chess, Scrabble, and ASL. In some cases, like Go, the game is even more than that, it becomes practically a god. This is where I receive the brunt of my own criticism: I am too lazy, immature, and not enough of a gamer to want to do this with such devotion. I also want candy, sometimes. But more power to them.

So my second problem with playing game after game is: playing games becomes pure entertainment with no substantial value.

3. Disservice to the Game

The first time I played Dvonn, the game looked like total chaos. In fact, my first few plays I felt that the whole game was almost random. If I had given up then, I would have missed a whole depth of understanding.

I could almost say that the first few times I played Dvonn I was not playing Dvonn, at all. I was playing "the introductory game that teaches you how to play Dvonn". The next few times I played were like playing a different game, entirely. You might even say: each time I play Dvonn, it is like I am playing an entirely new game.

They say that the first fifty games of Go are a learning experience. (I don't think that they say this about The Game of Life.)

If the game you are playing is any good - and by good, I mean "has depth", not only "is fun" - you are just not experiencing the game by playing it only a few times. Now, nobody owes anything to a game. What you owe is to yourself.

What can you say about exercise if you exercise once and then quit because you didn't lose weight? The experience of playing a game to a certain depth is the act of getting to know something, which goes beyond surface impressions.

This is where the similarity between games and movies part. It is very rare for a movie to be worth watching several times. Twice or three times, maybe, but not more than that. Games, on the other hand, really do change as your experience with them changes.

So my third problem with playing game after game is: you are not even playing the game.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is a happy balance. A few games at which you spend time getting better by pushing yourself. A few games that you play for new ideas and interactions. A few games you play as party games. New games once in a while, to learn something new and rotate out the solved and staid.

Any more than that and you're better off going out and getting some more exercise.



Joe Gola said...

I'm with you on all of this, except that I don't see 70% of what's being published as crap--or at least not the stuff from the publishers of hobby games. In fact, I would say that the majority of what's being put out is at least playable and amusing--at least a '6' on the BGG scale, if you're into that sort of thing--and that's really the "problem." I don't crave a ton of novelty, but I can't help saying "dang, that looks good...and that...and that...and that...."

Yehuda Berlinger said...

I could say the same thing about movies: the majority of them are watchable. Many of them look good in the reviews. That doesn't make them really worthwhile movies, just an afternoon's forgettable entertainment.

In fact, I won't even go so far as to say that any one of us will agree on which 10% are good.

I think the point is: if you don't watch 300 movies, why do you play 300 games? If you watched 300 different movies, was that time well spent? 300 different games?

For myself, I would consider 300 playings of 25 really good games to be time well spent. I expect to take some losses - some games I will try once or twice based on good reviews and find them to be wanting.

I guess the questions here are: can you identify the games that really matter? How about the games that you wouldn't really miss? If you must keep playing new games, is that an addiction? Is buckling down and getting good at the games you already play not an important aspect of gaming for you?


Yehuda Berlinger said...

By the way, despite the loaded way I phrase my questions, I am not insisting that playing 300 different games is "wrong" for everybody. You could answer the questions quite honestly and very differently from the way that I would. To each his own.

It seems somehow wrong to me, but then again, I'm poor. :-)


Anonymous said...

I'd also like to state that I really only use movie critics to know which movies to avoid. Of the "award winning critically acclaimed" movies that I have watched, I'd have to say that 80% are crap. By this I mean I didn't enjoy them, of course, but that's why I watch movies. On the rare occasions that I use my entertainment time for self-development, I'll read a book. Movies are supposed to be fun.

I have lamented that there are too many good new games coming out. I'm with Joe that most of the new games are at least a 6 and many are higher.

The problem with getting deeper into a game is that you need to be around others that feel the same way. Puerto Rico is fun on BSW. Teaching a bunch of newbies is not as fun. (I still do it, as I am a prosyletizer at heart.) And, face it, my group of players have a life, so they haven't played 200 some games of PR on BSW. I don't win all of our group's PR games, but I win a higher proportion of them than I do other games that we play in that group.

You've also stated quite nicely that your first few games of DVONN were learning how to play DVONN rather than games. I think that stage of playing games may be what I like best about new games. Learning how to learn to play a new game well is fun. Spending the time to play it really well (after I know how) isn't necessarily as much fun for me. Using PR as an example, my best memories of that game were when a bunch of us were trying all the strategies that we could think of.

I guess this means that in most games I will always be a dabbler rather than a master, but I can live with that!

dave said...

One of the problems our group has is that there are several game collectors with different tastes. Even though each one of us only gets a new game once in a while, when you add them up, as often as we meet, it seems like we are learning a new game as often as not.

Another issue, getting back to the point of having different tastes. If we did stop playing new games, I don't think we'd agree on which old games to focus on. I know that, of the types of games I am most interested in, it is a lot easier to get folks to sit down to a sexy new release than to play something a second time. In this case, buying a new game can be the most effective way of playing the types of games I enjoy. And that goes both ways. I'm willing (tho not eager) to sit down to my first game of Manila, but would be very reluctant to give the likes of Australia another go. Messed up, huh?

As you could probably tell, this is one my list of future blog topics. Looks like I'm already half way there. :)

Peter said...

This post is spot on Yehuda. My best gaming experiences have been getting the "meat" out of a game after playing it quite a few times. A couple of years ago my group played pretty much nothing but Euphrat & Tigris for 6 months - it was great! Every game was different, it was a very rich experience.

But I also crave the novelty of a new game. I guess I am searching for that elusive game that is so elgant, strategically rich, excitingly themed, and sensually beautiful that I can devote the rest of my life to playing it. Stupid thing is, it's probably already on my shelf.

I do the same sort of thing with CDs (there are many on my shelf I have never listened to) or books (or never read). I suspect that I am trying to buy the experience of sitting down and relaxing for a few hours with the music or the book. But of course that takes more than money - you also need the discipline to set aside the time for that experinec, and the same goes for games. Only more so, as you need to find others willing to set aside the same amount of time as well.

New games are cheap - what is precious almost beyond measure is a regular group of genial, well-mannered opponents.