The Promise of Play

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There Will Be Games

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promisesTraders of Genoa (also published under the name Genoa) is a fairly interesting Eurogame. It’s got a fair depth of mechanical strategy sat under a layer of finely-tuned verbal negotiation and the whole hangs together as a pleasingly balanced affair, allowing gamers of a variety of tastes and skills to pitch in and enjoy themselves. I’ve played it exactly 4 times, won every single session, and enjoyed them all. I’d play it again, but not in a hurry, and I have plenty of other games to play.

But I originally bought my copy to play specifically with two people, both of whom professed Monopoly to be their favoured trading game. I wanted to show them one of the better alternatives, but I never got the chance. One of those two people would probably find Genoa too complex to enjoy nowadays. The other moved to the other side of the country shortly after I bought the game, had two kids in quick succession, and I haven’t seen them in four years. The chances that I’ll ever play Genoa with either of them are, realistically, tiny.

All of these things flashed through my head in an instant last weekend as I opened one of the many tiny cupboards in the house across which I spread my unwieldy game collection, thinking about having a sort through and ditching some titles. When I closed that door, Genoa was still there. And it was still there entirely because of that tiny promise, that infinitesimal percentage that’s only nudging a little above zero, that I might one day get to play it with one of the people I bought it specifically to play against.

That miniscule promise of potential play, however unlikely, however against the odds, is the bane of gamers everywhere. It’s what sneaks that extra game into your basket before you check out. It’s what keeps unplayed games, and games that have been played to death on the shelf. It’s what fills your house with nerd clutter. It’s pernicious, all-encompassing and it affects gamers of every kind and creed, being especially terribly for board gamers due to the size and bulk of the items they accrue. And I have no idea how to fight it.

One of the worst areas of offense for me are war games. I own a number of them, and they’re nearly all 2-player and nearly all time-consuming. And yet, in terms of play opportunities, long 2-player games are probably the rarest slice of face-to-face gaming time that I have. But history remains a siren call for me, and so I cling on to a whole slew of wargames that, in reality, I will probably never play directly with another human being. There’s Vassal, of course, and a lot of those games I have played via email. But in a way that actually exacerbates the problem, encouraging you to cling on to rarely played games secure in the knowledge that should you suddenly find you really, really want to, you can find an opponent online. And in the meantime, the gnawing guilt that I have a lot of underplayed wargames means that shorter 2-player classics like Space Hulk get ignore in favour of longer games.

Having kids just hands you another excuse not to get rid of things, the reason being that if you divest yourself of such and such a game, little Johnny or Sally is almost certain to grow up into an aficionado of exactly what you traded away. In the same clearout session where I decided to keep Genoa, I offered myself a truly outstanding example of the absurd lengths that this - and other forms of justification - sometimes reach. I paused over putting out my copy of the Sparta Commands & Colors Expansion because, I kid you not, I reasoned that my six-year old daughter was interested in the Romans so, by extension, there was a fair chance she might grow up wanting to play games about other classical civilizations. Thankfully, the minute I thought this I realised how outrageous it was and put the game on my trade list. But it just goes to show how magical thinking can so easily come to dominate the minds of otherwise rational gamers when it comes time for a collection thinning exercise.

The same reason is basically behind some of the absurdly long times that games have been allowed to languish in my collection unplayed. I acquired my copy of Bootleggers in 2006, opened it, admired the little plastic trucks, read the rules and put it away in a cupboard where it has remained for six whole years. This isn’t some instant classic that I’ve somehow never got round to playing. It does not enjoy an exalted reputation amongst people whose taste I respect. I can think of no group I game with that would especially enjoy it, nor imagine a time that I would choose it before one of the many excellent games in its time and complexity slot that I already own. But I’ve held onto it because the promise of play worms its dark tendrils into my soul and tells me that one day, in the face of all available evidence, I might play it, and on that one day, in the face of all available evidence, I might find it to be my gaming nirvana.

Why do we do it? To some extent, it comes with the territory of being a gamer. I think every apparently sensible-seeming gamer has a rabid collector buried deep within them, trying to get out. I also think that gaming and a tendency toward hoarding tend to go hand in hand. But that isn’t enough to be the whole story. It’s that nagging doubt, the ever-present demon on your shoulder whispering “One day! One day you might play this!”. And I’m convinced it’s a demon because it’s the same voice that gets you to fill your house with unplayed tat, to spend money you don’t have on new games you don’t need and because it’s a vicious lie: most of the time you’re not going to play it, and you know it. But it’s too much of a siren call to ignore.

To some extent, understanding the problem helps to solve it. That’s partly the reason I’m writing this, so that the next time you’re assailed by the nagging promise of play you too might have pause to stop and think and check yourself to really make sure that it’s true. But I’d like to have other strategies to cope. You could, as Mike Siggins of Sumo did once he discovered there were so many games in his attic that the upstairs doors wouldn’t shut properly, pick a fixed number like fifty games and stop there. You could set a time period, say a year, and ditch any game that didn’t get played at least one in that time. But those sorts of rules require a will of iron, and are hard, unyielding things that care nothing for human niceties such as nostalgia, or borderline cases like small box card games. Ultimately there’s not much you can do but try to be honest with yourself.

And in honesty, Traders of Genoa deserves to make the cut. In honesty I’ll never play it for the reasons that I bought it, but my collection contains relatively few classic Eurogames and Genoa ranks high amongst them, and gets to stay on that basis. Diversity in taste is a rather more defensible argument than unlikely meetings with old friends. And trying to exercise a little honesty, I still found ten games or so to put in the sale pile. Bootleggers was one of them. The next time you decide it’s time for a little collection slimming, honesty may be your best ally.

There Will Be Games

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Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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