The Kindness of Strangers Hot

MattDP     
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kindness.jpgOne thing I didn’t mention in my last column about keeping up with my resolution to play the games I own an awful lot more was that I have recently been attempting to organise a new local gaming club, partly in order that I can get out more and play some more games. The elephant-minded amongst you may also recall that starting a local club was in fact another item on my list of resolutions for 2009. So in fact doing so has allowed me to kill two birds with one stone. The first session was fun but I was mortified to discover that after a host of promises for attendance it actually attracted only two other people. It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered this was because the chosen venue had a small card park and we’d actually had other people turn up, fail to park and drive on up the hill and get utterly and completely lost. But I digress. It’s been quite a while since I gamed at a club with strangers, and the experience led me to reflect on how this trend may, or may not, influence the direction of the hobby.

I’m not entirely sure why I get the feeling that gaming in a club setting is more common nowadays than it used to be, but I certainly do get that impression from people and it chimes with my own experience. Through most of my years of gaming I’ve spent the vast majority of the time gaming with people I knew as friends, rather than turning up at a regular, pre-organised club. Clubs are easier than ever to organise now thanks to the rise of the internet and the more recent innovation of social networking tools. I’d also venture to say that board games are perhaps more in need of an organised space outside the home than many other types of hobby games, except perhaps tabletop miniatures games, because so many titles benefit from a large amount of table space, and many gamers don’t have a big enough table at home. Perhaps it’s simply a function of age: now that I, and most of my gaming contemporaries are of the age when we have pre-school children around the house, gaming at home with friends simply becomes less feasible because of noise and space issues.

But whatever the benefits, gaming in a club setting brings with it its own problems. Whatever venue you choose will obviously want you out by a certain time, which is often on-the-dot and non-negotiable. Some - maybe all - of the people you’re gaming with will start out as strangers to you, and you may well never develop any sort of social relationship with them outside of the game club. That in itself doesn’t sound like much of a problem but it does influence what games you play and how you play them because you’ll be much more comfortable doing and saying certain things with a good friend than with a relative stranger. Most of the people who come to game will be game collectors who might turn up with a bagful of games, hoping they get to play something in their collection, and that can make discussing and choosing which games to play a little awkward.

So given these limitations, what’s the ideal game to bring to a game night? Well, because of the time constraints and the fact that you’ll have lots of games competing for table space you ideally want something which is short, or at the very least a game which runs for a reasonably predictable length of time. A simple rules set will help too because if you’ve got to explain the game you don’t want that eating in to your play time too much. With all the people and all their different games wanting some space in the limelight you might actually be drawn to relatively shallow games that don’t bear too many repeat plays because that way everyone can go away satisfied, feeling their purchases were justified. You might also shy away from high-interaction games and almost certainly from games with a heavy screw-your-neighbour element because you’ll be a little uncomfortable putting the hurt on to people when you’re not sure how they might react.  Games with benefit from a good dose of trash-talking or role-playing might be bypassed for a similar reason.

In short, the ideal club game matches almost perfectly the most common recent template for an ideal Eurogame.

Is this just co-incidence? I don’t think it is - even if I don’t feel on entirely solid ground suggesting that club gaming is more common now than it was ten years ago, the parallels seem just too perfect to be down to chance alone. I’m making no value judgments here: after all, if this is what’s happened then it is certainly as a result of an entirely unconscious and unpredictable series of events. It just seemed like a curious and interesting observation. There are two ways of looking at this relationship: either the rise in club gaming has played a part in shaping the design priorities of gamers, or the shift toward the modern Eurogame paradigm has helped the rise of club gaming. My money is that the former is the more important relationship, but I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.

So what are those of us who like edgier games to do if we want to play in a club setting? Well, in spite of my fondness for the longer, conflict driven civilisation style games, reflecting on this very question I was able to come up with a list of games in my collection that had the potential to please everyone. Ameritrash for the time-poor, if you like. I took one of them, Cosmic Encounter to a recent game session and most of the players seemed to have a blast playing it, although one or two were clearly not quite so sure, and the game clocked in at something like 75 minutes play time. Other games I’ve dug out of my attic with the same aim include Kremlin, Nexus Ops and Betrayal at House on the Hill. In addition there are, happily for me, a bunch of more recent Euros that manage to mix in enough interaction or chaos to make them great club fodder for me - Galaxy Trucker, Santiago and others. So if anyone from my club is reading this, you’ll know what to expect over the coming months!

But to go back to my original point, whatever the manner in which club and game have shaped each other over the past decade, I can’t say I’ve been terribly pleased by the outcome. Whatever your taste in games the propagation of an environment in which deep exploration of the strategic possibilities of any given title is actually discouraged isn’t a good thing. In the sessions since our initial meet everyone - and I mean everyone - has turned up with at least one game, many with several games in a bag. There’s no way, with that diversity on offer that anyone can get to repeat play a game.

So what’s the answer? Bizarrely I think that if anything, the fault lies with people like me who organise club meetings. If we want to see greater repeat plays of games or more socially interactive games on the table the onus is on us to create an environment where that’s likely to happen. Adjust your club night playing times to accommodate the potential of longer games, or more plays of shorter ones. Spend some time setting up the facilities like a forum, or even an online poll system to decide what you’re going to play before club begins - that way there’s less demand for table space and less chance anyone will go away feeling cheated because they didn’t get to play their latest game. Perhaps most importantly of all though, encourage some more non-game social interaction: sit and chat before and after, maybe even organise some social trips somewhere with club members. I can recall a miniatures game club I used to play at once put together a trip to the most famous military vehicle museum in the UK, which was a huge success and a great time. We’re all gamers, we love to play games, but sometimes it’s worth reminding ourselves that there are other ways we can form bonds with other gamers than through gaming - and that time taken to do so will no doubt repay itself handsomely in the increased fun and interaction you can have the next time you do sit down together over a gaming table.

The Kindness of Strangers There Will Be Games
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