Monday, November 21, 2005

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Why Railroad Tycoon is Like a Topless Dancer

It's late Sunday evening and I'm feeling pretty tired from two back-to-back games of Railroad Tycoon. Since RRT hit the streets I've played it about seven times. At least 12 or so locals have learned the rules, the store is sold out of copies and it currently occupies the majority of the headspace I've allotted to thinking about games.

When RRT came out for the pc I had the same experience. Also when RRT 2 came out. RRT 3 didn't create that same inner need for compulsively gaming, so I removed it from my pc, reloaded RRT 2 and played it some more.

I'm beginning to see a pattern here. I latch on to a game and then play it until I'm done playing it. Then I put it away, sometimes for a year or two and sometimes never to open it again. I did this with Settlers of Catan, I did it with Bang!, I did it with Empire Builder, I did it with Magic: The Gathering, with Dungeons & Dragons, with Wolfpack, with Fortress America and so forth and so on, ad nasuem.

I'd almost say I'm exhibiting addictive behaviour, except that I know that almost every man, woman and child who counts "board games" as one of their hobbies does the same thing. So we're not addicted, we're fans. If there were less of us and people looked at us with disdain, crossed the street when they saw us coming and muttered under their breath about street crime and wasted youth, then we would be addicts. We're not addicts. We're fans.

So what is it about a game like Railroad Tycoon that instills the desire to play again and again and again? And why didn't I get that feeling after finally completing a game of World In Flames? And why did I totally burn out on Puerto Rico after 6 or 7 plays and was only able to open the game up without feeling queasy and sick until at least a year after my quick romance with it? Why are most war games so frickin' unapproachable? And while they are often high quality experiences, most of us need to do something else for a while, gamewise, before we crack open War in the Pacific for a repeat play.

To answer my own questions, I think games like RRT and Ticket to Ride and many other popular games have several things going for them that hit a sweet spot in most gamers.

* Accessibility

Most of the games I've developed this sort of behaviour towards are relatively easy to learn and teach. They require very little in the way of arcane thought processes to a novice or brand new gamer. This quality gives the game a much wider audience.

* Speed of play

Most of these games play fast with very little down-time between your turns.

* Attractive

For the most part, and you have to allow for some leeway here in terms of personal tastes and the era of the game, the games are visually appealing before and during play. Railroad Tycoon is no slouch in this department. And even the humble little $10 Bang! feels good and has a presentation that suits the subject matter.

* Hope

Usually a game that inpires this level of willingness to play repeatedly doesn't leave the player feeling like they can't win. Typically you can always post-mortem a session and see how to approach the game even better next time. Which means you want to play again right now and try your plan out.

* Chance

Almost every game that has gotten into my gut this way has a chaotic side to it. You don't feel programmed and that strikes a chord in the majority of human beings. Having a sense that unseen events, a turn of the cards or a risk taken might just be exploited and fall into cadence with your march to victory is very alluring.

Looking these five qualities over it's apparent these may not be the qualities of the top ten or even top twenty-five rated games on websites like, but they certainly are the qualities of many games that sell extremely well and that appeal to the vast majority of people who are inclined to spend time and money playing board games.

Upon closer inspection, they also fit right in with the things I look for in a woman.

Hmmm... they also seem to be the qualities I look for in my personal choice of cars and motorcycles.

I'm sensing a pattern here.

My old buddy Mike Johnson, who, while working at my store, was awarded the coveted Employee of the Month status for three weeks running, often comments on this blog and challenges me to a round of Renegade Legion. Sorry Mike, Renegade Legion is like an old girlfriend, she was fun when I was young, but now I know way too much about her laundry, her psychiatrist, her family and why she holds me forever in contempt. I could no more get a thrill out of kicking your ass again in that game than I could in dating my 9th grade sweetheart now that she's fifty.

Which leads me to the firm belief that the games that have these five qualities tend to be short term fixations. And that may answer the question as to why Puerto Rico and a few other unalterably boring, scripted and visually unappealing games remain so highly rated. They usually require way too much cerebral activity and not enough Yee-ha! activity. They aren't sexy. But they are durable, reliable and satisfying when brought out in the right company.

What I'm suggesting here is that games that don't have these five qualities require too much work to extract the same level of uninterrupted enjoyment from. They're good, of that you can be sure, but they're not really that much fun.

Which, now that I look closely at it, my choices in games, women and vehicles usually has a lot more to do with Yee-Ha! than it does sensible spending and quiet evenings sipping chai tea with a couple of IT goobers who don't like to be interrupted by conversation while they're selecting a building in a boring game depicting the enslavement and abuse of half the population of Africa and the eventual exploitation of them on a fetid little island off the coast of Florida that had little more to offer than commodities, cockroaches and really good baseball players.

Yes, I will play Puerto Rico and yes, I will play Europe Engulfed (to mention two different types of games that rate highly), but no, I won't play them instead of Railroad Tycoon. At least not right now anyway. Why would I willingly drive a 1987 Buick when I can choose to drive a new Corvette? Why would I date someone's spinster sister when I am getting fluttering eyelash semaphore from the former topless dancer and massage therapist swaying drunkenly at the end of the bar?

Wow. I think I just figured it out. Now I know why I get this almost irrepressible desire to repeatedly play the "hot" new game. It's because Railroad Tycoon in very much like a former topless dancer and massage therapist who in her half-drunken state tosses me the keys to her new Porsche and says, "Okay Darlin', let's you and me go for a ride."

Whereas Puerto Rico is akin to being forced to double-date with your best friend's cousin who's visiting from Duluth and the only car available is his great aunt's 1986 Chevy Celebrity with the fuel efficient four-cylinder engine.

And the more I think about it, the less important it is to waste precious time playing the dry and themeless offerings that so many tout as superior. You have to take advantage of the situation at hand when a new Yee-Ha! game appears, enjoy the ride while it's still being offered. A fast and exciting game with twists, turns, unforseen events, wild suprises, shock, elation and adrenaline needs to be saddled and rode while it's still willing to hang out in your pasture. The bloom comes of that particular rose a lot quicker than some and I want to sniff it while it's a rose, not when it's all shrivelled and dried up.

Your buddy's cousin in Duluth? Yeah, yeah, she'll still be there next year and the Chevy Celebrity will still be snootily using less gas than the fast car. So what's the big rush? Besides which, like Puerto Rico, she started out kind of dry and shrivelled up and was never particularly exciting anyway. So I'll call her if I'm in town sometime with nothing better to do.


I also want to comment, in a half serious manner, about how excellent I think the production quality of many of the new games is. Games Like Railroad Tycoon, Descent and many other recent releases have really upped the bar on board game quality in general. Even some of the card games and lower priced games from the likes of Rio Grande Games and many others have a look, feel, smell and heft that is pleasing to those that find themselves pleased by such things.

I suspect the fact that more and more, the publishers are adding a lot of eye-candy and curb appeal to their games, but not because they think they need it to attract you to the game. I think it's because they have figured out that these factors really do expand the desirabilty of board games and that on a gut level, that's how they'll draw new players into the market.


Pawnstar said...

I just want to know why you didn't date RRT's more sophisticated sister, Age of Steam - or if you did why you failed to mention it?

I think I'm going to be playing the field a bit longer before I really settle down with any one game; but right now AoS is the closest thing I'm going to get to monogamy with a boardgame.

gamesgrandpa said...

Excellent, DW, excellent! I enjoyed RRT and RRT2 on the PC, so you've convinced me that I *need* the boardgame. But -- I'm just a fan....

Chad Krizan said...

"was awarded the coveted Employee of the Month status for three weeks running"

So "Employee of the Month" was a weekly award? :D

DWTripp said...

Age of Steam eh? Good, solid game. I think I rated it a 9 on BGG. But... RRT is not less sophisticated, it's just a different expression of the same mechanics. AOS is also boring to look at, very unforgiving economically and more prone to "take that" moves. I also like RRT's product distribution better as it creates much more tension and adds a more intense "race" element to the play.

Chad ~ Yes, the Employee of the Month award meant many different things. Often it was daily or weekly and sometimes it meant that the winner happened to be my only employee that month.

Anonymous said...

Yes, very well put !! Puerto Rico is very much like an old boyfriend who spends too much time at the game store and not enough time servicing me. But Railroad Tycoon is very much like the new geek who made a killing in a recent IPO, has a silver Porsche to prove it, and is capable of giving me multiple orgasms.

DWTripp said...

Railroad Tycoon is very much like the new geek who made a killing in a recent IPO, has a silver Porsche to prove it, and is capable of giving me multiple orgasms.

Thanks for the mental image Amy. Too bad I'm not about 30 years younger... I'd bring my copy over in my new Porsche. Except I don't have a new Porsche. But it's a nice image anyway.

Anonymous said...

Dear D-Dubha,

At the risk of spamming these comments ... thanks for taking my previous remark in the right spirit. I'm always trying to be funny, but more often than not I end up making people mad. (In the real world too ... ack!) As for Railroad Tycoon, I'm really only about a quarter through a two-person game, so its ability to produce that orgasmic mental high we all look for in games is still very much in limbo. (Wow, am I mixing metaphors or what !) And I'm still somewhat confused by the track laying rules. Anyway, thanks for the great article. (OK, I swear I'm going to stop spamming.)

Joe Gola said...

Y'see, that's why I like Knizia games. They're the marrying kind. They're the girl who you meet and you think "yeah, kinda cute, pretty fun, but nothing special." Then the next time you see them they're wearing a different outfit but they're still cute and they still have the same sunny personality and you think "huh, this one's all right, I'd even take her to the movies if I had nothing better to do." Then a week later you go to the movies and her hair is done differently and she's still cute and you have a great time and the morning after you're still thinking about what a nifty person she is, so fun and interesting, and gee, isn't it adorable when she laughs and her nose crinkles just so?

Then, a year and a half later you're shacked up together and you've just had a nice Saturday-afternoon roll in the hay and as you stare up at the ceiling you find yourself thinking, "Wow, I'm still not sick of this one. That's amazing."

But of course the one edge that games have over women is that with games you get to be a polygamist. And how!

GrillTech said...

Well thats it then.. I'm packing up my Renegade Legion and going home. :> I figured I had a better chance getting DW to play that, then to try to get him to play a real game like Attack Vector: Tactical.

As for the Employee of the Month, I'm sure that everyone that has read DW's opinions on BGG and his humor here would have to agree working for DW would be all the reward anyone really needed.

Just to put a proper image on DW in his store. Think of Comic store guy from the simpsons about 250 pounds lighter, and driving a harley instead of a Pacer.

Mike said...

Games are like girls? Well,the dominate my time and money and dictate my social life. Drive away some and encourage other friends. Steal closet space, shelf space and any other nook and cranny.
OK. I agree. Games are like my wife. Although I don't think I will every fully understand the rules and be able to win that game.

Kratrina said...

mr johnson

Did I miss something while I was working for DW? And how come I never got the employee of the month award? =) j/k

DWTripp said...

Did I miss something while I was working for DW? And how come I never got the employee of the month award? =) j/k

Actually Heather, you were up for the Employee Of The Year award... except you didn't work at the store for a year... which is probably good for you.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that most serious Puerto Rico geeks are playing it on BST where games are usually very quick with little downtime. That might shoehorn it into meeting your criteria.