Thoughts on greatness and failure

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Thoughts on greatness and failure
There Will Be Games

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Reading some posts on the fading appeal of a few recently published Ameritrash games made me think about what actually "makes" a good AT game, and in a broader sense, a good game in general. Yes, I do think about these things, in between sessions of Tibetan humming (therapy for my angst of card based combat) and binge drinking (helping me to get through the occasional euro that hits my gaming group's "Friday-anything-can-happen" nights).

Why are people still enchanted by old classics like Dune and Cosmic Encounter?

Why are people losing interest in a game that just rolled from the press like Middle Earth Quest (the most mentioned by posters)?

So what is the magic gene missing?

And who was the 4th Beatle?

It's pretty obvious, at least for me, that boardgaming is a hobby about social interactions. It's about sitting at a table with 5 people dressed in ridiculous "Natural Born Gamer" T-shirts, all named Jeff and Bruno. But for some inexplicable reason within 15 minutes everybody is laughing their #é!{@@& off and having a general good time. Sure, it's not the game, it's the people you play with. But why do some games work better with the same group than others? I have seen potentially great games sink like a rusty Russian submarine in salty water, while very simple games with little or no immediate appeal became instant legend.

My answer is simple: "Open architecture".

Open architecture explains both why a game like Cosmic encounter perfectly works for years, while most euros fail miserably in the long term department. Aside from the fact that a game with Egyptian farming as a thematic backbone does not radiate welcoming vibes, and is doomed at the word go, Euros seem to fall often in the same trap that I would describe as the "Never trust Johnny" syndrome: The designer has written a waterproof set of rules that forms a perfect procedural flowchart that, with amazing precision, guides the players through a number of steps, leaving little or no room for creative play. Every little detail is laid out like a welcoming dinner, as if the designer was making sure nobody would miss anything the design is trying to achieve on a mechanical level.

MOre often than not, the result is a game that feels fresh and groundbreaking at first, but after repeated plays unavoidably becomes a soul-less system, offering no room for creative thinking on the player's part. And that is exactly what a timeless game offers: a set of rules that will become transparent after a few plays, leaving some blanks in all the right places so players can approach the game in total freedom and adapt their playing style to the moment and the behaviour of others at the table, without losing direction. And yes, before you ask, this is both rare and hard to achieve.

Why? Because it takes courage for a designer to both resist the urge to form a tightly woven structure in which players manoeuvre and at the same time trust players to fill in the blanks.Look at the basic simplicity of a game like Cosmic Encounter. Stripped down from all the chrome it's a very oldskool system that has little or no elements that makes you believe it is a masterpiece, but actually playing the game makes you realize that it is all about how the system enables players to interact with each other in creative ways that can NEVER be captured in a set of rules.Having designed some games myself I often realize that the true qualities a game offers at the gaming table are often those elements missing from the rules. What the rules give you is the cold heartless mechanical framework in which the magic is triggered, not the actual soul of the game. That pounding heart is formed at the table when players start interacting and filling the gaps in the rules with their own unique unpredictable colors.

Sure, chances are you need to have some imagination to get sucked into the gaming world offered by the system. After all your German friend Günter wearing his "I game for sex" cap isn't exactly the menacing Baron Harkonnen he is supposed to represent. But halfway into Dune you begin to smell the spice as players begin to form an organic string of interactive decisions that create a story-like texture. And when the high drama kicks in, never scripted in the rules or set by some mechanical timer, you feel part of something that is transcending cardboard and chits.

Maybe that is why alot of people like Castle Ravenloft. It has an admirable constraint, never attempting to show off a set of innovative mechanics just for the sake of showing innovative mechanics,  which many recent FFG games seem to do very transparently. Instead we get an almost bare-bone system with some blanks in the rules and at least on paper a blandness that makes you wonder if you are reading the correct set of rules because everyone is raving about this game.

But you know what, this toolbox of a game turns out to be generating some occasionally bliss. Not every time, mind you. That is part of the mysterious lure of these timeless games. Even Dune fails 1 in 3 times to show it's greatness for reasons never to be fully understood. It's the price we have to pay for an open architecture. But when everything interlocks in a magical string of moments that could never be captured in a tight framework of well designed mechanical procedures and tightly set turn structures, a classic game is born.

And no, I'm not giving up on MEQ. But first I want to delve into the depths of that fanged game everybody is talking about.

There Will Be Games
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