Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Roman Puzzle and Game Perceptions

I want to start off by offering a puzzle, and I'll do my best to offer a new one every two weeks.

I've been looking at the names of games, and I've noticed that a lot have Roman numerals in them. If you multiply all of the numerals found in a game's name, you get yet another number. If I were to throw in the length of the name and the amount of Roman numerals, you get a puzzle.

For example, if you take the clue "FIVE-LETTER GAME, 2 NUMBERS, and 1000" you would get FLUXX.

First you figure out which two roman numerals when multiplied equal 1000. This could be:

M (1000) and I (1),
C (100) and X (10),
CC (200) and V (5),
L (50) and XX (20),

If you went with the last pair, then you would throw in the remaining two letters (U and F) to get FLUXX. The hidden numbers will always be separated by at least one non-roman numeral. Also, two-digit roman numerals won't be split up (in the above example, the answer wouldn't split up the two X's).

Now here's the puzzle:

EIGHT-LETTER GAME, 3 NUMBERS, and 4,950,000.

What's the game?

So I'm managing World Games of Montana, a Missoula game store. In the past year and a half, I've spent a lot of time in the game store for fun, just playing around and occasionally helping lost souls find a decent game. But my time as a "game store regular" in no way prepared me for the loads of the people I've encountered in the last few weeks as manager.

Don’t misunderstand me, though. People are nice. People don't typically come into a game store in a foul mood (though I haven't been here for Christmas). I like working here and talking with customers about products I enjoy. But some of the things I hear make me want to open a head or two to find out what exactly their gerbil is up to.

Let me spare you stories of the usual "You mean it's like Monopoly?" after I've just spent 10 minutes explaining Puerto Rico or the plethora of tales about that humble mother, aunt, or grandmother with an overly intelligent child, grandchild, niece or nephew (Oh, your child is a genius? Well, may I recommend Dread Pirate?). Gamers get that kind of stuff even when they don't work in a retail gaming shop.

I have two stories in mind, both of which I have yet to really figure out but which inspired this blog:

The first. A woman came in with her little boy, probably elementary school age. The boy was attracted to all the war games like Attack!, Memoir '44, and Axis & Allies. As he was picking up the last one, the mother grabbed it, put it back, and said, "No games about war. There's enough war in the world." Then she asked if we had any chess clubs the boy could attend.

The second. A woman came in and asked if we had Guillotine for her little boy (he had already played it and liked it). I said that we were out but that perhaps he might enjoy another light game like Bang! I explained the rules, and she cut me off, saying that it sounded too violent.

Both of these incidents left me without comment, literally sucked me dry of the ability to reply. What do I say? What can I say? Their minds were already decided, a kind of thin-sliced instant opinion that Malcolm Gladwell describes in his book "Blink!" but different because of the lack of true experience.

The perception of a game is a sort of all-enduring phenomenon. I'm imagining that there were some internal monologues from the above situations going something like this: "Chess is chess. I don't know the rules, but I put it on a pedestal because that's what intelligent people do." or "My child likes a game called Guillotine. I haven't actually taken the time to look at the game or internalize that it's about cutting off people's heads. My child likes it, so it must be wholesome and completely different than a game about shooting people." No one can break these mind sets. It takes personal experience, a certain amount of time for people to cope with the internal dissonance of their opposing thoughts, and then -voila!- they're cured. Some of the time, anyway.

You simply can't get away from the idea that with some of these public game perceptions come game stereotypes and groupings. I actually use these mindsets to help people decide which game to buy. If I tell them that Settlers of Catan is like a slightly more complicated Monopoly with family appeal, they'll be more likely to at least look at it, maybe buy. If I don't use comparisons, customers will often volunteer comparisons with the best their mental game libraries have to offer:

Go? Is that like Pente?

BuyWord? Is that like Boggle?

Puerto Rico? Is that like Candyland?

Well, maybe that last one is a big fat phony (that is, it never happened), but people do tend to shove new games into very distinct mental compartments. That's how chess can cease to be a war game and is instead a good mental exercise and sign of healthy intelligence. That's how Guillotine can cease to be a game about the bloody French Revolution and is instead a fun, wholesome game that children like and enjoy. I've been telling people for years that Candyland is all about tooth decay and gingivitis, but they never listen.

I'm just grateful to Klaus Teuber and his Settlers of Catan for slowly changing the public perception of games. He and Settlers have made it much easier for me to do my job. I don't think I could take the daily grind if everyone's reference point was Monopoly and Boggle. With his game working wonders on Americans, I believe there will be a day when people will ask if Power Grid is like Settlers of Catan. Not quite right, of course, but definitely headed in the right direction.


Gerald McD said...

So, what do you have against Boggle? Great game, especially to teach youngsters about words, spelling, and making connections. I started to say that it teaches one how to "think outside the box," but it actually requires that you "think inside the box." It's more of a puzzle than a game, anyway.

I do understand your point, though, and my experience with non-gamers matches your description of the issue.

Anonymous said...

Here in Germany Settlers is already so known, that often people go inside a shop and ask "I want a game like Settlers". You introduce them to a few good German Germans, they dont like them (they are not like Settlers and if they are, then Settlers is superiour) and then you sell an expension or something like "Abenteuer Menschheit"...
"Like Monopoly?" is now more and more substituted to "Like Settlers?" here. Clearly an improvement, but frusttrating nonetheless...
(I dont work in a store, but I have volunteered to help a couple of times)

Smatt said...

gerald mcd - I've got nothing against Boggle. It's a very clever game, though I think they could've tested the letter combos on the dice a bit more. I just meant that sometimes a person's point of reference is so narrow that a salesperson can feel that his/her explanation of a game was thrown away.

peer sylverster - That is so interesting that what I hope for here is what has already happened in Germany. Trying to find a new good game for folks can be very challenging, regardless of their gaming backgrounds. For people that like Settlers of Catan, I often recommend a game with high player interaction like Bohnanza. The two share little in common, but I do my best to match up what people expect from a gaming experience with the kind of game that might produce such an experience.