Saturday, December 17, 2005

Winning, Losing and the Killer instinct

First of all, thanks to Coldfoot and the team for the invitation to join them here. Fraser and I will share this spot, blogging opposite Joe Gola on alternate Saturdays. We'll most likely be writing about the joys of gaming with young children (our daughters are 7 and 2), as well as the pleasures (or not) of gaming with a spouse.

There’s something special about beating your spouse in a game. The thrill of grinding them into the dirt - watching them wriggle and squirm, then lose by a good margin anyway - can fill us with almost unsurpassable joy.

I’m definitely no exception. And when I win, I make sure I rub it in.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my husband, and I think I’m usually a good loser and a good winner. It’s just that he’s better at games than I am.

Games at our place fall into three categories: the games I win, the games he wins, and the games that can go either way. By far the largest of these categories is the second one.

Now there are games that I just can’t bring myself to care about losing, at least publicly. I lost our first 13 games of Snakes and Ladders to Biggie and Fraser. Then I won one and promptly lost the next ten or so. We don't play that game anymore.

There are other games that can go either way when we play. Lost Cities, Balloon Cup, Schotten Totten – even Attika – have a pretty even win/loss record. We enjoy these games, but they're rarely the first game off the shelf when we sit down to play.

And there are some games – some wonderful, wonderful games – at which I just beat him.

It’s important to say upfront that I claim no particular greatness at these games. I lose most of my online Tigris and Euphrates games – but of all the games we have played together, Fraser has won two at most. While Fraser is still trying to remember the French phrase for “where is the palace”, I am gaining influence and completing key missions in Louis XIV. And let’s just say that my Trias dinosaurs have a much better understanding of continental drift than Fraser’s.

There’s a pattern to our wins and losses, which holds true most of the times we sit down to a new game.

The first time we play, it may go either way. Often, we agree to treat it as a learning game and call the result before we’ve finished the entire game. If we play it out, the result is usually very close, unless someone made a heinous error.

The second and third games, more often than not, go to me. Not always, but enough for there to be a noticeable trend. You’d think I would have learned not to get cocky about this by now, wouldn’t you, but I will still excitedly issue the challenge: Come on, try to beat me and my obvious aptitude for this new game, Mr I-have-lost-them-all-so-far.

Then he does.

Again and again and again. Until I am completely mortified and Reepicheep-like in my defiant – and baseless – challenges. It’s hard to accuse someone of being afraid of your superior game-play and strategy when they have won the last seven games you played, but I’ll try.

It took nine almost back-to-back games of Puerto Rico before I could beat him with any regularity. Now we’re broken for Puerto Rico with other people, because we’re both wired to beat up on each other to the exclusion of all else. It’s a friendly kind of rivalry, but it can’t be fun for anyone else, especially people who aren’t so familiar with the game.

Oddly, I almost invariably do better against computer opponents than he does.
So what’s going on? Is this just a (gleefully accepted) chance to publicly mock my husband’s losing streaks? That would be an acceptable reason in itself, it's true, but there are some underlying reasons why these patterns hold true so consistently.

There are fundamental differences in the ways we approach games. To Fraser, they’re puzzles waiting to be solved. Those first few games, he’s experimenting with strategies, trying out new techniques, wondering whether it will be better if he does it this way or that, and generally enjoying himself. I’m following the script that led to victory in the first game, either for me or for someone else, experimenting a little but never veering far off that basic strategy. Once he finds a better way to play or win, it will take me a game or two to replicate or block his strategy – and by then he’s found a way to stymie that as well. I do my thinking and planning before the game starts and, if I’m lucky, at one or two key moments during the game; he does it more consistently as the game progresses. The first time he beat me at Tigris and Euphrates, he threw me by attacking me and causing conflicts from his very first move. I'm wise to that now; he'll have to come up with something new if he wants to throw me like that again.

Once that winning pattern kicks in, though, so does my bloody-mindedness. I will demand to play the game over and over, just watching for the weak point that I can manipulate to my advantage. Given the choice, I’ll almost always pick a game where Fraser wipes the floor with me over another game, desperate to claw back a little self-respect. Gaming is never so serious - or so tense and bloodthirsty - as when I'm fighting to regain my dignity.

At the heart of it all, the truth is that I enjoy the social aspects of gaming as much as I do the mechanics. I'll always play to win, but when we play with a group I’m satisfied with a good showing, happy to not be absolutely dead last, glad to have indulged my love of a good game.

When I beat my husband, though, I reserve the right to behave badly.

Gaming with the girls

Not much gaming was done this week, as we prepared for our Christmas holidays. We’re driving interstate to stay with (non-gaming) family, so decisions about which games to pack will be difficult as space is tight.

Last week at game night, with only 3 players, we played Gargon and Elfenland. Gargon is a very nice card game by RĂ¼diger Dorn and we played three quickish hands of it – it’s fairly light and not a lenthy game, which makes it a good start or finish to a game night. It's nicely designed, too, which is always a plus. I’ll look out for a copy.

It was my first game of Elfenland, and I liked it a lot, although it felt a little thin with only three players. This is a game that Biggie (aged 7) has been begging to play, so it might make another showing this weekend. She’s played Ticket to Ride, so she’s already familiar with the face up/face down selection method – it’s exciting for her when she realises that she already knows game mechanics.

We tried Zendo with Biggie one night this week, now that my much-awaited copy has arrived. She’s played something similar at school, which they call “Are you in my club?” so she was familiar with the basic idea. Fiddling with the Icehouse pyramids was an added bonus, and I found her playing it solo this morning (although I'm not entirely sure how you play Zendo solo). My prediction was that I would like it, Biggie would love it and Fraser would probably hate it. That was pretty accurate, although Fraser was lukewarm rather than anti. I did find that I broke most of my “gaming with kids” rules to skew my guesses to be just a little bit wrong, and to lead her towards the correct solution. In the next few weeks, I’d like to get out some more logic and deduction games, so that we can lead up to Clue(do) early next year.

I also tried a variant of Koffer Packen (Pack your Suitcase) with Otto (aged 2). This is a lovely memory-style game where the cards are laid out face up, then turned over. Children then have to remember where the cards are and name them before turning them up. We played a home-grown variant where we chose some cards, then looked at one and turned it face down. “Look at the truck. Now let’s turn it over. What’s on this card? A truck! Well done! And this one? A comb! Oh you are good at remembering things" – I found she could easily remember 6 or 7 cards when they showed things that were directly relevant to her experience – a truck, a ball, a bucket and spade.

May your meeples be good meeples.



Shannon Appelcline said...

I envy you guys your competitiveness. My wife can't deal with stiff competition, and so we have to explicitly seek out games that are a little friendlier.

Melissa said...

I realised after I posted that it was very one-sided. Perhaps I should have talked about Fraser's suggestion (when we were discussing the content of this entry) that I have an L for L-O-S-E-R tattooed on my forehead to save him the trouble of pointing it out :)

Of course it's all in fun. Otherwise we would have taken each other out years ago!

Yehuda Berlinger said...

My wife and I only play one game - the game may change over time, but for the last two years it is Puerto Rico.

She is fiercely competitive: depressed when she loses, and full of self-confidence when she wins. I don't think I could say that either of us "behave badly" (over gaming, anyway), but we are about even, generally, which is a Good Thing.

Anyway, welcome aboard.


Paul Kidd said...

Good to see you on the blog, Melissa.

My wife is not a serious gamer, basically she only games with me and occasionally with friends, but when we play one-on-one she is seriously competitive. When she beats me at San Juan (our current game of choice) she finds it extremely difficult to hide her glee.

Where are you off to for your holidays. If you are in Queensland let us know if you want a game of something.


Melissa said...

Hi Paul,

We're off to Sydney for a week or so and then, later in January, to Lorne. So not as far north as you I'm afraid.

As long as your respective egoes can take it (which they obviously can), the post-game teasing can be an important part of the gaming time :)

Yehuda, it's funny how we can get really into one game, to the exclusion of all others, for a time, isn't it.

Fraser said...

We will briefly making almost as far north as Newcastle, which really is nothing compared to Queensland :-)