There. I said it.
I mean, objectively, I am terrible. Horrible, in fact. The worst. I'm the demographic that publishers avoid: I don't have and have not played the newest games, I haven't incorporated the newest expansions into the games that I own, I don't care about phone/tablet/computer apps to enhance my playing experience, I have no idea what games are up on KickStarter, and I don't follow the shiny intellectual property (IP) du jour. What else makes me terrible? Oh yeah - I don't spend a lot of money and I don't follow hype.
(I did, however, just purchase a bottle of 14 year old, single cask Laphroaig. We'll get back to that.)
What ultimately makes me a terrible game hobbyist is I take games more seriously than our current board gaming culture appreciates or allows. Not serious in the sense that I get angry with other players and hold grudges, or that I abet and encourage rules lawyering, but in the sense of opportunity cost. When I spend money on a game, I am well aware that I am giving up the ability to use that money for something else (e.g., see a movie, buy a pizza, pay for gas); when I sit down to play a game, I am cognizant that I am giving up the option to do other things with that time (e.g., read a book, practice a kata, dine with a friend). The end result is that I only purchase and play games that I believe will offer me engagement and richness.
I find a game engaging if it is sufficiently immersive, flexible, dynamic, unique, and interesting to pique and hold my interest. Much of this derives from a game's theme and from mechanisms that are consistent with that theme. Beyond that, I want the promise of active involvement and an in-game environment that is logically constrained by a reasonable rule set but still open to evolution based on player decisions without the limitations of a scripted path or an inevitable conclusion. Last, I look for a sense of freshness and distinctiveness in design or story as opposed to freshness date. This is why I tend to avoid IP games. I have found that popular IP tends to attract lazy non-mechanistic design, simply because the theme and salient story elements are already generally accepted or established canon.
Games don't need to be deep or complex to offer richness. They need to be clever, thoughtful, and nuanced. The long and short of it is that I don't want to simply be able to play a game more than once, I want to need to play a game more than once to digest and appreciate it. Shallow games quickly expose everything they offer and are usually mastered after a few plays. The issue is that I'm not looking for a sense of mastery: I'm searching for a prolonged sense of challenge. I want to be rewarded for my dedication to a game, perhaps by new insights gleaned or intriguing nuances slowly revealed. I want to push the boundaries of a game and discover things about both the game and myself: Can I still win from position X? What happens if I play counter to strategy Y? What is the spirit of the rule as opposed to its letter, so that my table can enhance our experience with interesting house variations?
In the grand scheme of things, a game can be a pastime or a shared social experience. I prefer the latter. This is why I don't pursue solo play. My enjoyment of a game derives as much (or more) from the shared rituals my friends and I have slowly established during our time together as it does from the playing of the game itself.
(And that's where the Laphroaig comes in. I told you we'd get back to it.)
The games that capture my imagination and hold my attention require - no, demand - commitment to multiple plays. It is only through repeated play that understated variances are revealed, that the lovely tendrils of immersion thicken and strengthen their hold, and that willful strategy begins to more consistently overcome blind luck. With more plays, corner cases emerge, small rules make their presence felt, and a game evolves from a simple set of mechanisms, payoffs, and objectives supported by manipulatives and graphics into a human social experience, rich with evocation and emotion, and worthy of permanent residency in the collective memory and mythos of one's circle of friends.
But there is a cost. The rapid acquisition and adoption of new games runs anathema to thoughtful exploration and intimate participation. Every play session one spends delving deeply into one game is a play session denied to another. So it comes down to each gamer to decide where they find their greatest value at the margin: tasting games or savoring them, meeting them or grokking them. The same holds true for designers. Will one develop games for rapid consumption and ephemeral encounters, or will one design games that offer substance and subtlety, and that reward players for dedication and repeated play? As for me, I have deliberately chosen the latter, both to play and to design. And I am willing to accept the costs of limited exposure to new games and a limited audience for my own.
So, choose wisely and enjoy the ride. If you choose the path of deliberation and you see me plodding about along your way, stop and say hello. After all, it's not like we are in a rush to get anywhere. And if you choose to surf on the seemingly unending tidal wave of new games that constantly floods the market and you see me being battered about like an old buoy, speed on by...
... after all, I'm a terrible game hobbyist. Let me drown.