Zen and the Art of Board Games

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The Art of War
"It's more fun when you can just make shit up because it seems like a good idea and then test out the idea rather than working step by step through some painful proof."


 This quote from a mathematician amongst us.

Satisfaction Part II

OK, so people responded.  That was goal #1.  I got a nice spread of opinions, mostly from right here on Fortress: Ameritrash and that was particularly pleasing, but results came in my personal email as well as on BGG.

For those just tuning in, my last article asked readers to spend a moment to write a few sentences about what they look for in games, and to send them to me.  The link is here --> Satisfaction.  I received a couple of dozen responses with some really well-considered opinions, and more than a few of them exceptionally written.  Some of you should consider submitting an article.  I'd like to take a minute to review what appeared in my three inboxes and I'll start with this clutch quote to officially open the conversation:

"What I really think though, is that the games, through the shared experience of play, are making for real friendships. The games are an experience and common ground and time and memory created with a new group of people excited by the outcome and narrative."

That was one of the first replies to arrive.  It describes one of the common themes in the conversation.  Reading each person's statements individually didn't bring it out so much -- it was mixed into other observations.  But when I reread the entire set one after the other it jumped out at me.  A game's job is to bind us, to forge relationships.

"Games with a lot of interaction . . .  I'd rather play a video game solo or online over a board game that separates rather than brings people together."

That one's a backhand shot, but the meaning is there.  In fact his message listed five things in this order -- "interaction," "theme," "luck" and then, to make sure I understood where he was coming from, "interaction", and "A LOT OF INTERACTION."  On the surface it looks like he's discussing a simple mechanic found in the game, but he tips his hand with those last three words -- "brings people together" and it's become pretty apparent to me that our daily conversations here saying anything's fun when playing with the right people are BS.  These quotes talk about having the right centerpiece, the right title on the table to work as a social tool.  The game matters, and apparently more than a bit.  We're looking for it to provide avenues of communication, and in case those quotes haven't convinced you, try a quote from the G-D* Admin of this fine web site --

"Games strip away the existing social structures and constraints and create new power structures and encourage people to play with each other. Children become overlords. Lovers lie to each other. Strangers become allies. Wallflowers become leaders. Sweet, soft spoken grandmothers become mob bosses who wack their own grandkids."

Shamelessly stolen from her blog.  It's in the same vein, but as usual she's lifted conversation significantly, because it includes something beyond merely bringing people closer together.  She's talking escape.  She's talking about transporting yourself to another time and place where the rules are different, and more importantly, where the relationships between us are allowed to change.  Particularly revealing in role-playing games, some board games provide a bit of that as well.  It can be enlightening to see the wallflower of the group suddenly become a despot, and just witnessing it can be incredibly rewarding.  Being a part of it . . . that's the kind of thing that changes your opinion of people for life.

Other people made comments similar to hers, including one that stopped me dead in my tracks with this very short set of words --

"My own representation is too weak."

He posted a lot more about escape, but this phrase was the real eye-opener for me.  It was a reference to why he found Santiago and Puerto Rico unsatisfying -- he couldn't see himself in the gameplay.  The games he does find satisfying?  Agricola and Dungeonquest, and that's one hell of a shotgun marriage.  A long rambling message, he apologized for its disjointed nature and I got the feeling that he too has been struggling to find what he likes.  But he appears to be tuning in -- it's not merely about escaping, he wants to be personally represented in the action.  He wants to see himself in the play.  Branham's Razor says "this is me, these are mine," but in this case it's "this is me and that's plenty."  Dungeonquest pretty much writes the story for you, but it's your story.  Agricola is your farm.  Both paint a picture that is more intimate.  This is a man that should work with his hands.

Escape provides a kind of satisfaction that may or may not be tied to the other players in the game.  When the choice is mine I select games where the players in the mix are integral to the decision-making process.  This isn't just interaction -- the concept is broader than my limited tastes.  Plenty of games let you beat on each other with wild abandon and that has its charms, but it doesn't provide avenues for nuance in the play.  Bargaining and deals, alliances, that kind of action opens opportunities for games to have an analog spectrum of play instead of discrete options -- this is the "play that lifts off the board" concept that I've spoken to previously, and I find it satisfying, but it depends on other players to carry their share of the storyline and that may not be appealing or even available to you.  I'm blessed with some solid friends that can do that.  Some nights are better than others of course, but I'd rather take a shot at it and miss than play something dependably above-average.  I like it when a game provides an avenue for that kind of thing to happen.

"I love it when a plan comes together."

OK, time to go to the gut.

"I like games that reward bluffing and taking risks that allow me a chance to beat everyone at the table. That doesn’t mean a game that is radically luck based but one where there is hidden information coupled with randomness that allows wacky, A-Team-like schemes to come to fruition."

I speak a lot on risk and for me I think I take more satisfaction from the opposite side of what's written above -- I like to see if I can establish control in a chaotic situation produced by the game scenario.  For others, causing the confusion and hiding within it is the better half of the play, and I can respect that.  As the writer above alluded to, radically luck-based games disenfranchise the players too much.  But true chaos has relatively dependable regions of stability, and playing games in one of those regions gives you some level of command over yourself, and very likely some measurable level over others.  The concept of "if I manage to get a couple of breaks" can make for some really entertaining action, especially since it's so much harder for your fellow players to divine what it is you're trying to do with the confusion in the mix.

"I hope to see people improvise in the face of constraints. I want to see improvisation in others, and I want to improvise . . . I enjoy witnessing a well executed ambush or trap just as much as I enjoy seeing someone evade it by a hair's breadth."

Weaseling out of a tough spot can be very gratifying.  It appeals to us to beat the odds somehow, to win as the underdog.  We actually feel a physical response in our stomachs.  I mentioned the gut above for a reason, because more than a few of you spoke to the feeling you get in your belly when you're at risk, and how you found it a rewarding part of your game play.

"It's the 'edge of your seat' feeling I get when playing either a 1/2 hour (2 de Mayo) or 8 hour game (Titan).  It's the possibility of something strange and wonderful happening that isn't scripted unlike worker placement/optimization games."

The gentleman is down-talking worker placement -- someone that wanted to be quoted and knew how to make it happen.  Another vote for non-control.  That edge-of-your-seat phenomenon isn't much of a surprise, but think about it for a minute.  This is board games.  This isn't a skydiving web site -- we're a bunch of dweebs that get fired up over whether our cardboard will outnumber the other guy's cardboard at the end of the night.  We pull excitement from the competitive scenario that board games provide.  The challenge of beating our friends, beating the board, beating whatever or whoever, is sufficiently thrilling to bring us back to the table for another go.  I don't mean to trash it, but you have to admit it's an odd part of our nature.  People look at us that funny way for a reason.  We take joy succeeding in a scenario where nothing really counts.  We may have a couple of dollars on the table but I'd bet most of us don't even have that.  Instead we enjoy the opportunity gaming provides for us to try things we wouldn't in the real world.  We get to take risks without getting hurt.  Challenging, but safe.

What remains is the effect on the big organ.  

The brain.  

This is where the BGG people hit their marks.  That's not much of a surprise though a few here on F:At were head-oriented as well  The word "discovery" kept coming up and I get the distinct impression that part of the reason that euros sell so well is their puzzle-like aspects.  Each may be similar to previous titles, but each presents its own balance of the various parts, and presents a new riddle to figure out in order to succeed.

"For me learning is also discovery.  In fact discovery is learning trimmed down to its bare essence.  Discovery can be how to use the game's system to work for you.  That is pretty rewarding."

"I like games that confront me with interesting decisions at high frequency."

"Every time I sit down to a game (new or old) I want there to be some new things to explore and try out. When the time comes that I have tried every strategy there is in Puerto Rico, I will probably stop playing that game. Same for every other game."

Figuring out the game is part of the reward in smaller tighter games.  It's the epitome of the euro-design concept.  That's their nature, and when they're good they can really be a great play.  The drawback?  Limited life-cycle.  The advantage?  Fresh discovery with each new purchase -- brain-candy.  At $15-$40 a purchase five or six cycles may be sufficient to get your money's worth before trading them away, and goodness knows there are always more to choose from.  This is the part of euro that I personally enjoy -- euros that actually do what they promise are just fine on my table.  Fundamentally, euro is about the brain.

But discovery didn't mean light and easy to everyone.  Our mathematician again -- "What I want is a problem so complex that you can't solve it, you can only develop algorithms and theories that in all likelihood will hold you in good stead, but won't guarantee a win."

He's used the wrong word -- algorithm.  He's talking about heuristic play.  Luck-laden or not, games that are sufficiently complex provide a situation where you can't systematically work out all the options and select your most-favored move.  Instead you have to work from general concepts you've developed through life's experience, implementing solution on the fly as the game plays out.  Think Sun Tzu's The Art of War -- concepts that guide you regardless of your specific scenario.  This is a fuzzier kind of brain-play -- you're as likely to make a good decision because of a moment you experienced as a kid learning to work an umpire as you are from your last play of that same game.  In a truly complex scenario, chaotic or not, you make decisions based upon your core understanding of game theory, of life theory.  It's analog play, and it has far more real-world applications than gacmits.  This is Missiles in October.  This is Vicksburg.  This is when you draw from your entire body of knowledge and make strategic decisions that should be mostly right and then find ways to make them completely right in subsequent turns.

I'll be honest with you.  The Mathematician?  He's a complete freak.  But he's on it; he's described in a couple of sentences what I've tried to understand and to explain in three separate columns with marginal success, so he's welcome at my gaming table any day.  I'll even let him drink my Scotch (the good stuff, not the trash I put in the empty Talisker bottle.)  He's pointing at the thing that I reach for and generally don't attain when I play.

But he's not immune.  In the end, like the rest of you he boiled it down to escapism. He writes "The other is escapism in themes" to finish, and that's the single concept virtually all of you wrote about.

"I play board games that make me forget about other crap and get me living in the moment of the game. I keep coming back to games that do a better job at that."

It's the same reason we go to the movies, or read books, even sing in the car.  We want to be in another world, even if just for a few minutes.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see everyone bringing it up.  I just wish I had brought it up first so I wouldn't look so naive.  Everyone loves a good story, and everyone is happy to land the starring role.

Thanks for writing folks!


* Grande Dame

Sagrilarus is a monthly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash.

Click here for more board game articles by Sagrilarus.

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