Friday, January 12, 2007

On Not Playing a Game to Death

I was never a music person. It’s not that a good song couldn’t get me tapping my toes, it’s that I always preferred spending my kopeks on books and games. A nice side effect of this lack of enthusiasm was that most of my favorite songs never seemed to get old. If you have to wait for the Stones’ Start Me Up to show up on your classic rock station, you’re probably not to going to get burned out on it pretty fast. I’ve been listening for that song for decades and my enthusiasm for it hasn’t waned yet.

This un-jadedness applies to my gaming habits as well, because I don’t get to play my favorites that often. The Appalachian Gamers usually meet at the home of Ted Cheatham where we have convenient access to Ted’s large game collection. And Ted’s policy is to encourage us to play new games, or games that one or more of us has not tried before. During my first year with the group, at least one game per session seemed to come from my games-I’d-like-to-try list. This year, one or more games we play each session is likely to come from Dave’s (the new guy) list of games-I’d-like-to-try (along with some from my old list that we still haven’t gotten to yet).

The result of this bias toward trying something new is that I’ve played a larger variety of games than I would have if I’d been allowed to focus on my favorites. The vast majority of the games I’ve tried I’ve found to be decent middle-of-the-road games that neither excite me nor repel me. There’s only been a few that I’ve hated (Liar’s Dice is an exercise in frustration for someone who doesn’t have a mathematical mind). There have been a few that have impressed me even if they aren’t the kind of game that I would buy (Modern Art and Rumis are too abstract for me to love, but I appreciate the ingenuity of their design). And there have been a handful that have been unexpected delights (Just last week I discovered that Big Boss is a fine sibling of Acquire with enough unique elements to keep it from being a pointless clone).

Of course, you have already guessed that my main point is that it is impossible to become jaded about my favorite games when I play them so infrequently. Sometimes when reviewing a game Chris Farrell will say something like This game will be good for another five or six plays, but it isn’t a keeper. I suspect that if he spaced those five or six plays over a two or three year period, he might never get tired of the game.

I am generally in favor of the pro-variety policy. But there is a downside to infrequently playing a challenging game: it can be impossible to get a handle on a game if you only play it twice a year. The first time I played Age of Steam, I went broke. Instantly. Maybe the fastest loss in the history of the game. That was over a year ago. If I played it again, my performance would likely be equally terrible. Unless our gaming group changes its ways, I will never even become a competent AoS player.

It’s hard to keep rules in your head if you only play a game two or three times a year. Many gamers can sit down and play Caylus or Puerto Rico or Union Pacific without ever opening the rule book. Not me. I remember the gist of these games, but I have to refresh my memory of the rules if I want to play them again.

And there is a certain low level of frustration in playing a great new game and then packing it away for months because it isn’t likely to get played again any time soon. I enjoyed my first game of Perikles a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t win. Heaven knows when I’ll get a re-match. (But there was at least one member of the Appalachian Gamers who wasn’t there that night, so maybe I can get Perikles added to the to-be-tried list).

In spite of the pro-variety policy, there are a couple of games that I have played a lot. I play Ticket to Ride with my in-laws so that game has hit the table frequently. And I was one of the playtesters of the War of the Ring expansion so I have played that a lot.

And I haven’t tired of either of those games. I’d be happy to play them again tonight.

That makes me wonder if I really would become jaded if I played El Grande three or four times a year instead of just two. Maybe play Caylus twice in one month. Play two sessions of Perikles back to back. Could my gaming enthusiasm withstand such decadent over-indulgence?

Nah. Better not risk it. Some games are too cool to spoil by playing them often.


Anonymous said...

I take the opposite approach. Games are more likely to be spolied by not playing them enough. For most great games, only when you have played it a few times will its nuances begin to reveal themselves. And if you do reach burnout for a game, just give it a break then. Six or twelve months later you can jump right back in.

The best way to really explore the depths of a few games is to select some for a group to committ to a minimum of 5 plays over six months.

huzonfirst said...

First of all, Kris, having a mathematical mind will do you no good with Liar's Dice. I'm a mathematician, for God's sake, and I suck at the game. No, it's more about the bluffing and psyching than about calculating odds. Believe me, I speak from bitter experience.

Our group is much like yours. We love the new and the shiny. And I agree with you, when I hear Farrell or someone else dismiss a game as being only good for five or so games, I think, "Wow, if I get to play this five times, that'll be great!"

I don't think we're quite as extreme as you guys are, though. Games that get a good reception are almost always played two or three times at a minimum. This allows us to play a ton of new games, but still give the best of them the number of plays they deserve. It's a mix that works quite well for us. Still, there are a few recent games I'd like to see get more table time, like Canal Mania or Tempus. Maybe after we get through the Essen games.

The constant influx of new games can be a problem, though. When Caylus came out, for some reason no one in our group fell in love with it. I wanted to give it more plays, but had trouble doing so. I've since played it a few times, but like you and Age of Steam, doubt I'll ever really plumb the game's depths since it's always so long between games. I still think it's very good, but I may never get the full appreciation for it that so many others have.

Ava Jarvis said...

A lot of games are "middle of the road"---something you can play through ten times and then get tired of. The exceptions are very flexible games---usually game systems that aren't actually games themselves, but can foster a lot of games, like Icehouse or Piecepack; games that have a lot of variety in construction and new additions, like many CCGs/CMGs, Heroscape, Blue Moon; games that feature variety through different scenarios, such as BattleLore, Wizard Kings, and others of that ilk; and games that are deep in play and strategy with a large exploration space, like Reef Encounter, Caylus, T&E, and a few classics like chess and go. (Boy, is go deep, in a scary kind of way.)

Some of these definitions overlap---you might consider scenario games or special powers games to be a more restricted variant of a game system. That doesn't quite fit the deep games, which stick to the same rules and playing field, maybe with some luck thrown in, but no more than the usual games.

I enjoy cycling the usual games, but I'm starting to appreciate how rich focusing on particular kinds of games can be---I've vowed to not buy more than one game and one expansion a month, but I've been so satisfied with BattleLore, Heroscape, and Go that to tell the truth it's become rather easy to not add to my collection. There aren't even any games I particularly desire this month, and perhaps I desire a little bit for an extra pack of samurai archers in Heroscape. (Hmm, and also whenever the next Dungeon Twister expansion comes out. I love Dungeon Twister for the same reasons that I like the previously mentioned games...)

Something super-spectacular is going to have to come along before I add it to my collection; even if it's a mid-shelf-life game, some of them are pretty spectacular, even if you can't drag them out too long. I love the little Kosmos 2-players that are actually good, for instance, or similar such games, because they fill a particular niche much better than a deeper game would. And a Knizia is almost always worth a look, even if it's something like Genesis, and definitely if it's something like Ingenious or Lord of the Rings. He won't create another T&E or Blue Moon for quite some time.