In my never-ending quest to write articles that only a couple hundred people will ever read, I recently asked the advice of a fellow gamer for inspiration. He pointed me to a video from TED, that fount of ideas that makes everyone think they are an expert. In it, author Dan Gilbert poses the question of what makes us happy. You can watch his very interesting presentation here, but let me give you the condensed version. Humans seek happiness, but many of us don’t realize that we are actually capable of synthesizing it. We know that we are happy when we get something that we want. That’s what we call “natural” happiness. But suppose we don’t get what we want, or something bad happens. According to Gilbert, the human mind is capable of “synthesizing” happiness, accepting the circumstance and embracing its result. Have you ever looked back ten years later at a job you didn’t get, and realized that you are much happier for not getting it? That’s sythesized happiness.
The problem is, we don’t consider synthesized and natural happiness to be equal. Almost everyone would rather have the sense of control and freedom and get what they want, rather than have to accept something bad and grow happy in the midst of it. Gilbert contends that this conviction that synthesized happiness is inferior drives us to put ourselves in situations that actively make us unhappy. We choose situations where we perceive we have freedom and choice, but when those situations result in some kind of failure, it is far more devastating to our happiness than if we had never allowed ourselves that freedom in the first place.
Whether you agree with that or not, what does any of this have to do with board games? It seems to me that it’s actually awfully important, because many gamers measure the quality of a game based on how much choice they are offered. They will often use the phrase “meaningful decisions,” though many will not agree on what exactly that means. The consensus often revolves around the player being in control of what they do. If you make good decisions in a game, a game ought to reward you in measure for how good your decisions were. Any game that deprives you of that reward is considered to be “random” or “chaotic.” Those words are used in some circles like swears, the most damning label you can apply to a game. If you can play an entire game to the best of your abilities, and your success or failure still depends at least partially on the roll of a die or the flip of a card, that can’t be a very good game.
In some ways, I understand this sentiment. It’s not always much fun to spend that game of Catan trading as efficiently as possible, only to lose because everyone else keeps placing the robber on you. But I think there is something to be said for taking decisions out of the hand of the player. Obviously, there are games whose openness and freedom leads to satisfying gameplay. Mage Knight and Imperial come to mind, although there are many others. But the games I keep coming back to, the ones that bring the most “fun,” are the ones that force me to adapt to circumstances that are beyond my control. They are the ones that make me “sythesize” enjoyment.
I recently played my first game of Tom Wham’s Kings & Things. The turn structure reminded me heavily of modern fantasy games, particularly Runewars or Warrior Knights. There were several phases to each turn, where the player recruits units, or explores a hex, or fights an enemy, and so on. The difference between those games and Kings & Things was the presence of wildly random elements. The newer games by Fantasy Flight afford the player a fair bit of control when accomplishing all of the phases, but Kings & Things basically just had you roll a die to accomplish most of it. I have no doubt that this would infuriate a lot of gamers I know, but for me it was kind of liberating. There were still choices to make, and I’m sure that they had an impact. But when the responsibility for failure was removed from my hands, it allowed me to accept those circumstances and move on to the next phase of the game. I played only once, and then very poorly. But I actually had a wonderful time, and I would daresay that it was a more enjoyable experience than many more modern games.
And of course, the king of changing circumstances is Cosmic Encounter. One of the key aspects of the game is that you don’t know what you’ll have to overcome to succeed. Your opponent might have a Cosmic Zap. You may be stuck with a bad hand of cards. You don’t even know who you’ll have to attack on your turn. And yet, more than any other game, Cosmic Encounter allows the player to flourish in that adversity. It rewards creative thought, and the biggest fans of the game love the bizarre situations that arise to challenge the player. You may not always succeed, but the pleasure of simply trying is what has elevated the game to become my favorite.
Now that I think about it, it may not even be the presence of random elements that makes a game fun. Rather, a lot of that fun depends on the player being able to accept a bad situation, even one of their own making. Have you played a game of Power Grid with someone who is losing badly? Some people will sit there and complain about it, and talk about how they wish they had been given more warnings on how volatile the fuel market can be, or how important it is to get an efficient plant. Still other people will just merrily sit in the rear of the pack, taking their turns and playing out their losing situation, cracking jokes and still having a grand old time. So once again we are left with the old chestnut that people make games fun, not the games themselves. While I do believe that there are games that do more to promote that enjoyment, I’m comfortable with saying that perhaps we don’t need more fun games. We might just need more fun gamers.
But at the same time, I find myself drawn to games that force me to deal with bad luck. It’s not merely the tension and excitement that comes from random elements. It’s a bracing feeling when I’m actually able to overcome a bad hand of cards. There’s a greater reward knowing that I conquered fate, than in merely learning how to think a little more efficiently. And even if I fail, who cares? It’s just bad luck, and that’s nobody’s fault.
A special thanks to Adam Barney, the friend who challenged me to write on this topic and pointed me to his video. He's posted his own take on the same topic here.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.