"This has been a great."
"You like the way the game plays?"
"This thing? Nah. It's crap. But this may be the best Scotch I've had in a year . . . can we do this again next week?"
Once again I confront evidence that we all play for different reasons.
In our hearts we all sit down to the same table. It's the common bond between us. The table's in different rooms in different houses, different states and spread all across the countries of the world. But when we close our eyes and picture that table it's pretty much the same for all of us. Likely you see a box sitting in the middle of it, and that box is whunat brings us to this web site, and to this conversation. In fact I'll bet the box you're seeing is the same one seen by dozens or even hundreds of other game players you've never met.
We come to this table because we find the gaming experience satisfying for some reason or another.
That's been the heart of my journey for the last year and a half. My first two articles spoke about the nature of games, and what makes certain titles worthwhile for me. I make no excuses -- both were personal opinion pieces and I don't pretend to speak for all or even a majority of my peers. But the heart of the matter, the concept of what I was describing from my personal perspective does apply to all here, and I can best boil it down to one word: satisfaction. It's why we come back. Go ahead, queue the Stones music and celebrate -- I've described a concept so vague we can all agree on it.
To a large extent, this journey I've taken over the last eighteen months or so has been an inner inspection of what it is I'm looking for from gaming, a thorough consideration of what it is that brings me back to the table. This has proven more complex than I thought it would be. As often as not what I've figured out is what's not sufficient to make me happy and that's useful to a degree, but you know how that goes. Short of coming up with a couple of heuristics to use as a solid guide I'm doomed to end up with games on my shelf that remain unplayed or underplayed, money down a hole and time to the wind. It's insufficient. I need more understanding. So I've come here.
One of the things I like about Fortress: Ameritrash is that more than a few of you are able to string together a couple of coherent sentences that, once you set the references to each other's anatomy and personal habits aside, provide me with the kind of insight that helps me down this path. So before you continue reading, I'd like to offer up a question, and ask that you consider answering it for me. Reply to me via personal mail. It's short, but it's a whopper --
What is it in the box that brings you back?
That is, what is the heart of the matter, what is crux, what is the strange attractor that brings you back to particular games? I'm not looking for the name of a game or some technical detail about it, I'm looking for the essence, the spirit of it, the intangible part that works for you. What gives certain games that edginess that makes you want to return to them? This isn't a rhetorical question to move the conversation -- I really want to see your responses in black & white. I want you to send them to me.
Now if you choose to consider the question and send me a reply I'll give you fair warning -- I'm looking to use it for very selfish reasons. There are two: 1) fleshing out these articles is a complete bitch and if a few of you can write half of the next one for me I'm all ears, and 2) I've discovered that as often as not the most innocent observation in an email or forum reply can send me reeling down a thought tunnel that I had never considered before. They're catalysts of immense importance in my life and I greatly value the written word. Your message may be as important to my mission of self-discovery as anything I do on my own. Your voices make a difference. That's why I come here to read almost every day.
And I'm asking for your response in a private message in good consideration. I know how much effect one voice can have. There's always a Mule in the crowd that influences the conversation, and I fear that a few voices here carry more weight than others. They aren't pushy; were I to guess I think they prefer to not have that effect occur. But occur it does, and if you spend the time to consider your answer before reading everyone else's you'll likely project a clearer picture. In fact I'd like you to even consider sending your thoughts to me before you continue reading, as my voice confused though it may be will likely do you no favors either. Send them to any one of the following three places:
- My private mail here. (Preferred)
- My private mail on BGG.
- My email address -- Sagrilarus at yahoo dot com.
Those second and third options are a nod to our non-member readers -- articles on Fortress: Ameritrash generally have two or three times as many hits as there are registered users . . . there are a LOT of people reading here that aren't providing input into our conversations. That's their prerogative, but I want to reach out for those opinions too. I want everyone to have a shot at this.
Now would be a good time to consider your answer -- what is it in the box that brings you back?
You finished? Ok. Here's my take on things. Let's leave the quality of our fellow players out it for now. And the scotch. We can look at that kind of thing later, so for the moment let's look in the box. Here's what I have identified for myself so far. First, a few "nots".
- It's not as simple as sitting down to something new. In fact my hit rate is so low now that I look at new with a jaundiced eye.
- It's not a simple categorization of mechanics. Over the last few weeks I've stumbled upon two games with identical fundamental architectures (from the same designer in fact) with very different results. One was a complete trainwreck while the other worked with remarkable grace and ease. It's trickier than the kind of play.
- It's not a theme thing. Sorry guys. That's not a popular opinion here, but theme is largely a nice-to-have item for me, not the primary source of the satisfaction. There has to be brain candy, and that means ruleset.
That's it for the "not" factors. Those are cheating -- ruling out is easy. Let's cheat just a bit more. Here's my thoughts on the non-nots, the tangible things that actually bring me back:
- Sufficient unpredictability in the game to make me struggle for control. (Reference this previous article for the gory details. I'll not drag you through that again.)
- Active in nature, not reactive. I think the reason I dislike Worker Placement so much is that, at its heart, it's about dealing with what's left, and as often as not working to minimize other people's opportunities instead of capitalizing on your own. I deal with engineering compromises all day, so when game-time comes I want to seize an opportunity, no matter how small.
But this is my real answer here -- what I'm looking for in the gameplay is an opportunity to learn. Something. Anything. That's pretty vague. It's still vague in my mind too but I think this is the heart of what I truly look for when I play. The title needs to challenge me with something unexpected and unpredictable, something that I have to react to, something I have to consider. Not a lecture, I want the play to challenge me to adapt and find a path to success. Frankly I don't care if that challenge is coming from my opponent or the box itself, I just want an unexpected scenario channeled in my direction, whatever the source. And when I succeed, I want to be able to take credit for it. My victory.
This isn't an ego thing where I want to be recognized for my brilliance, it's more of a selfish thing. If I sit down to play a game I want to pull my own oars. That's what I use games for -- to make me lift my level play and improve myself, be it on a tabletop or a baseball diamond. And I want to learn from it, even if it's learning a new way to fail. I want the game to let me play on my terms, and I want to try to win it my way.
That's what I've figured out so far. Me me me! It's a wonder anyone tolerates me at all. Why the hell are you still reading this?
To be fair the nature of the question begs each of us to consider ourselves first. That's necessary, and not just for us. Cranky gamers are no fun to play with, so you had better get a grip on what's going to fulfill you, lift your spirits. Then you can surround yourself with the right toys and the right people to enjoy them. Good mental health.
Please consider taking a few minutes to send me a response.
Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.