The Tipping Point Hot

MattDP     
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Being a self-confessed game whore, I jump at every chance I get to play a new game and, if necessary, I'm prepared to work pretty hard at getting to grips with a new title, understanding it and trying to see where the "fun" part of the game is, whether it's in the strategy or whether it's in the story. Over the many years that I've been a hobby gamer there have only been two games that have defeated me in this regard after multiple attempts at understanding: Magic Realm and Paths of Glory. Both are games which would appear to suit my tastes exceptionally well, and both are games which come with a high degree of praise from the majority of gamers that have tried them. So there is no doubt a certain element of spiteful resentment at potential pleasure denied that nowadays I take pretty much any opportunity available to badmouth either title.

But is that really just and fair? Is it really right to form a judgement of the quality of a game that you haven't actually managed to play properly? It's an especially pertinent question for someone in my position who writes regular game review columns and whose opinions other gamers trust, take seriously, and use in weighing up their potential purchases. In taking a negative position on these two games I have pretty much already declared that the answer is yes - and my justification is pretty simple. If a game puts so many potential stumbling blocks in the way that I, an avid and experienced gamer, cannot learn to play the game effectively after multiple tries then from my point of view it's a bad game: other people, possibly even the majority, are likely to suffer similar problems when they try to play. However at the back of my mind there has always been the equally simple counter-argument that of course it's wrong that I should do this: many, many other gamers have garnered many, many hours of enjoyment out of these titles, so in fact it must be me that's doing something wrong not being able to learn the game, not the game itself which is at fault.

Take, for example, my frequent characterisation of the Magic Realm, combat system as being a tedious rock-paper-scissors variant with enough superfluous bells and whistles to sink the Titanic. During a discussion with a fan of the game he conceded to me that the combat system might look like that if it were stripped back to it's bare essentials, but by the time you've added in all the rules for magic, equipment and multiple combatants, the result was so multi-layered and complex that it ceased to resemble its venerable and boring forebear and became a genuine marvel of narrative and tactical skill. My counterpoint is simple: because of the overpowering level of complexity that the game presents to novice players, and the advice that goes with it to learn the game piecemeal, my experience of play has only been with the bare-bones system and the resulting boring bare-bones combat. The game has effectively put so many barriers in the way of finding out what makes it cool and unusual that by the time I've learned enough about it to try the fully-featured combat system, I am already bored by the simpler mechanics. It's a vicious circle - the more blocks of complexity that get put in my way, the less likely I am to appreciate the depth of the game and the less likely I am to bother making the effort to break the back of the next obstacle.

With Paths of Glory the issue is different. While the rules are bad enough, the real problem I came across here was the level of strategic complexity in the game. After digesting the weight of rules, one is presented with a large board on which there are very few units, a hand of cards, and a truly staggering array of potential opening moves. My various opponents at Paths of Glory, all experienced players, independently voiced their disapproval of the strategies I attempted to pursue early in the game and proved their points by rapidly beating me. So, clearly, there's a learning curve over and above the rules themselves to undertake before one can become a remotely competent player, and if you've got no insight at all on to how to form useful strategies because the potential variability is so huge you're back into a vicious circle again: you loose, have little idea why, and so are discouraged from trying to play again and learn more by the prospect of many more losses to come, and more bored, dismissive opponents, before you can make a decent fist of it.

While I currently stand by my arguments and opinions on these two particular titles it's worth noting that I tried to learn both of them in play-by-email (PBEM) games. This is, obviously, not the idea scenario in which to be taught particularly complex games. The chances are your opponent will be vastly more experienced - and skilled - than you and yet his opportunities for passing on that wisdom will be extremely limited if the game is not to become unworkably slow. And yet I can't help but feel that since both games in question take a long time to play and are otherwise well-suited to the PBEM format, that this actually constitutes a part of the problem and another justification for my negative opinions. Still, I would try either game again with a fan who promised to spend plenty of time and effort trying  to help me and teach me the error of my ways.

But I've been quick in the past to criticise people who form poor opinions of favourites of mine which are similarly slow to reveal their charms such as Titan. In defence of that particular game I could point out that it's a lot easier to learn than either Magic Realm or Paths of Glory, even if it does potentially take just as long to play, and that even new players should be able to pick up the most straightforward strategies on which to build their skill in their very first game. So, obviously, I feel that there's a line somewhere in terms of approachability that, when crossed, moves the game from simply being difficult to learn to actually being bad. So, again, we're forced to ask the question: where is it fair to draw this line?

Let's take a look at some other games that I've had difficulty picking up for one reason or another. The example that springs immediately to mind is Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. The first couple of times I played this, I hated it. It seemed to me to be an almost entirely random crapshoot in which the decisions you made were almost an afterthought to the cards that came out - on my very first game I beat my experienced opponent in turn 1 simply by winning a lucky battle at the foot of the alps with an inferior force. But I was persuaded by my opponents to persevere with the game. Another 3-4 games later and I was forced to revise my opinion after coming to see that although there was a huge random element in the game, it did allow for some incredibly creative strategy and tactics. At that point I wrote a review which was semi-favourable but which gave its perceived flaws a very hard time indeed. Another five or so games later and my opinion has been revised upward a little bit more because I've started to see the odd point in the game where a poor showing that appeared to be down to the cards was also at least partly down to my inexperience. I don't believe it'll keep on going upward with yet more plays but you never know - I didn't believe my opinion would keep on going upward when I first judged the game to be poor, and now I've derived a lot of enjoyment from the title. This long example serves to illustrate the simple point that some games just need repeat plays in order to properly reveal their charms.

On the flipside of course, it's worth noting that for every game which is capable of slowly revealing their delightful secrets like layers of wrapping on a surprise present, there are probably about ten which look awesome when you first play them but quickly run out of steam. The Ticket to Ride games are the poster-child for this phenomenon. Indeed as far as I can tell the franchise only survives because of its ability to re-invent itself with minor map or rules modifications and the credulousness of gamers who will repeatedly pay full price for what are, in effect, expansions. Games like this have their place - I've still got my copy of Ticket to Ride: Europe in spite of having become bored with it because it does make a useful family game and it looks like an awesome way to teach kids European geography. But the question you have to ask is whether or not the glut of low-replayability games like this on the market has effectively lowered the attention span of the gaming community in the same way that modern bite-sized chunks of media are apparently lowering the attention span of youngsters. If you're surrounded by a gamut of games - more than you can ever hope to play - which give you instant satisfaction and are, at least for those first few plays, highly enjoyable why would you bother investing the time and energy in something less forward with its appeal?

There are three potential answers to this question. One is simple economics: as a general rule slower-burning games are that way because they present the player with multiple layers of complex, interlocking strategy potentials and so tend to have longer potential play lives as a result. Invest the time in learning these games and you'll need to buy less new games and you'll save yourself some money. The second is the more elitist - and frankly wrong, in my opinion - idea that it's better for you as a gamer to expose yourself to deep strategy games in order to practice mental agility. Whilst it might be a potential benefit, it's wrong to assume that this is what everyone should be striving for, or even that every high shelf-life game can provide it. I can think of several games which offer a lot of replay value simply through variety or rich narrative as much (if not more) than strategy. But I think the most compelling answer is simply one of experience. If gamers are constantly cutting themselves off from unapproachable games because something that offers instant gratification is always available they're cutting themselves off from a large segment of potential gaming experiences and the fun that goes with them. The experience of having a quality game slowly come together in your head over multiple plays is just not something that any number of well-designed but more transient titles can replicate.

So the ultimate answer is, to some extent, a cop-out. The place where the line is drawn between judging a game bad because you find it unplayable for some reason, and judging that you don't have sufficient experience or expertise to make an opinion on that game is an entirely personal one. And rather than being judgemental about it, for once, it seems to me entirely right that this should be so because where you draw that line is partly dependent on personal circumstances regarding your free time, disposable income and the makeup of your gaming group that have nothing to do with your abilities or tastes as a gamer. I'm comfortable with having drawn it between Magic Realm and Paths of Glory on one side and all the other games I've played on the other. Where you draw your line will be different. But you might want to stop a moment and look more closely at the games that you've decided to bypass. If too many people dig that chasm too far toward the easy end of the spectrum then eventually there will come a tipping point where games like Titan and Hannibal - and Magic Realm for that matter - really do pass beyond the pale. And that would be a great shame for the whole of the hobby.

The Tipping Point There Will Be Games
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